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Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

Part One in a new series about brothers and sisters I have adopted throughout life as an only child.

I adopted Susan as my sister when we were two years old, in daycare. It wasn’t daycare, really, not in the modern sense. We didn’t have a certified childhood education specialist preempting our literacy development, rudimentary mathematics, and confidence-building socialization. We had Carla, the kind, middle-aged woman from across the street, under whose dining room table we took naps, whispering to each other from opposite sides of the fake Persian rug. It was Rainbow Bright and Spaghetti-Os daycare. Carla, whose bushy brown hair resembled an Elizabethan headpiece, sent us home with vivid orange mouths each weekday to our single, working moms.

Susan was a natural choice for an adopted sister. Her real sister was a decade older than us, already edging into preteen disaffectedness, reading Seventeen cross-legged on her bed, stereo playing, door closed (yes, we secretly worshipped her). Susan and I also shared a birthday. Susan was older by fourteen hours and six minutes, a fact I resented until our twenties. That our parents were both divorced made it irresistible to posit theories of twinhood, one of our mothers having an affair with one of our fathers, producing us, and then splitting us up for cover. Divorce apparently made us numb to things like infidelity and conspiracy. When our mothers put an end to it–”Who the hell do you think we are?” my mother said at dinner, lighting a cigarette–we tried to become stepsisters by setting Susan’s mother up with my father. Seven years old and broke, we picked wildflowers and put them in a vase with a forged note. I couldn’t get my father’s left-handed print to look right, and the ruse never got off the ground.

We looked nothing alike, of course. I was tall, working my way towards plump, with frizzy brown hair and eyes the color of black coffee. Susan was short and spindly, with luscious, dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and a ski slope nose I still think is the prettiest in the world. If we were twins, even in our imaginations, we were undoubtedly fraternal.

It worked to our advantage that our mothers became friends, too. While Susan and I donned costumes and smeared pilfered red lipstick on the mirror in my bedroom, our moms drank boxed white zinfandel and smoked. They talked single-mom talk–bosses who made their daytime lives hell, daughters who made their nighttime lives hell, child support payments, houses in various states of disarray, fatigue, depression, anxiety, anger. My mother’s sense of the dark comedy that was our life was better honed than Susan’s mother’s, so we spent most of our time at my house, where we had more privileges and less yelling. Not wanting to part at the end of the night, we devised a fail-safe system for sleepover requests: we counted our mothers’ glasses of wine. At number three, we struck. We tiptoed into the kitchen and handed our respective parent a note.

Can Susan please spend the night, pretty please with carrots and peas? I’ll take out the garbage and dust and vacuum the whole house. Circle yes or no.

Mommy dearest, can I please please please please spend the night at Amy’s? Pretty please with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and three cherries? Yes No Maybe.

As soon as we got our way, we fought. I was an overly sensitive child who cried easily and couldn’t take a joke, and Susan was a ball-buster. I can’t remember that our fights were about anything more than that. But once feelings were hurt, we were likely to push each other, scream, and swear we hated each other, just like real sisters. My mother’s penchant for doting on any child that wasn’t her own made these fights fraught with extra sensitivity–deep down, I had grown accustomed to not sharing my mother, and nothing could make me feel as unsafe as the thought of her loving anyone more than me. When she took Susan’s side–and she always took Susan’s side–the knot of worry that I would go through life alone tightened inside me.

When I was ten, my mother had a breakdown during Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house. Wordlessly, she began crying at the table, great, silent sobs that shook her shoulders, her head bent over her plate. My aunt and grandmother led her upstairs, and when they returned, my grandmother told me I would be staying with her and my grandfather for a while. “Your mom needs some time to herself,” she said.

I stayed with my grandparents for a week. Every meal invariably included red meat, something I never ate at home. My grandfather critiqued my table manners. “Elbows off the table,” he said. “Bring the food to your face, not your face to the food.” Each morning when I woke in my grandmother’s sewing room, sunlight weak through the pleated coral-colored curtains, the sinking feeling that my mother wouldn’t return grew stronger. I didn’t know how to deal with this fear except to cry, an act not well tolerated in my grandparents’ reticent house. “You’re not a baby,” my grandmother said, “so stop behaving like one.”

Towards the end of the week, my grandmother took me along while she ran errands. We drove my great-grandmother’s seafoam green Chevy, a car that steered more like a boat and had a clean, minty smell I can still conjure in my dreams. Sitting in the Grand Union parking lot, her long fingers curved around the thin, hard steering wheel, my grandmother told me that I was the reason for my mother’s breakdown. “You’ll have to grow up, Amy Lynne,” she said, using my middle name for emphasis, “if you want people to love you.” I stared out the window at the slushy parking lot and said nothing, even as the air in my gut went straight out of me.

I don’t know if it was this or puberty that kicked my obsession with people liking me into high gear, but around this time I began letting my insecurities run wild. At school, I desperately sought popularity, kissing up to the Lindsays and Lauras that ruled our class. I spent Thursdays with my father and took advantage of his cluelessness, preying on his penchant to show love through money. We took epic trips to the mall and returned with bags of clothes from The Limited and Gap. My mother’s face would fall when I came home, arms loaded with Daddy’s love. She didn’t like watching me get spoiled, especially by the man I had come to worship because he wasn’t around enough to hurt me like she could.

Susan’s mother, on the other hand, gave new meaning to the word “thrifty.” Determined to pay off their house and save for retirement, she took Susan to K-Mart for new clothes. Susan’s father had all but disappeared–he showed up every other year or so for a lavish visit, only to vanish into another chapter of his new life near Lake Placid. If anyone had the right to feel lonely as a kid, it was Susan, not me. While I grew more sociable, hanging on the periphery of cool kids and chasing boys, Susan grew quieter and more detached from the cliques forming at school. She hardly ever raised her hand in class or participated in extracurricular stuff, possibly because she really had no interest, possibly because her mother wouldn’t let her do anything that cost money. A Czech immigrant whose family fled to Germany at the start of the Cold War, Susan’s mother was practiced at living without, and passed minimalism on to her two daughters. Every other year, Susan’s mother would take the family back to Germany to visit Susan’s Oma and Opa, and I complained to my mother that we never took trips like that, all the way to Europe. I’m embarrassed to remember my jealousy when Susan would leave for two weeks in the summer and return with bars of chocolate thick as a book and wrapped in paper with another language written on it. In reality, because she did not speak German, Susan’s trips overseas were hardly more exciting than her life at home.

As our priorities grew more disparate, Susan and I saw less of each other. We still walked to school together during junior high and high school, but we had increasingly shallower conversations as we crossed the railroad tracks over Nanticoke Avenue, cut through the sparse backyards on North Street, crisscrossed the potholed parking lot of Philly Sales. Though I was actually just a patsy for popular girls–I did their homework, wrote their papers, gave them my mother’s stolen beer–I pretended to Susan that I fit in, bragging about parties I went to, guys I flirted with, substances I consumed. Every time I made out with someone, I told her every salivating detail, acting as though I was growing up faster than she was, pitying her for getting left behind. Either because she was kind or because it was easier, Susan said almost nothing during these dish sessions, letting me believe her silence was envy and not indifference. While I was out gathering “friends” and boyfriends, Susan began working part-time at K-Mart when we turned sixteen. That’s where she met Bob.

Bob was twenty. An almost five-year age gap was a huge deal when it came to a junior in high school. Susan’s mother went ballistic over the relationship. She called my mother to report catching Bob in Susan’s bedroom, Susan sneaking out to meet Bob, Susan and Bob continuing what Susan’s mother had strictly forbidden. In addition to learning what she could live without, Susan had also learned from her mother a fierce independence. Her personal rebellion wasn’t expressed with black clothing, body piercings, or tattoos. By the time she met Bob, Susan didn’t care what people thought of her, who she dated, or what was “normal” for a teenage girl, even when it came to how she pissed off her parents. She cared only about being happy. And Bob, a gangly, bespectacled artist who loved heavy metal and black humor, made her happy.

Susan and Bob circa 1999

For a few months, Susan and I had more than our history in common again. She had a boyfriend. And she was thinking of sleeping with him (I had rather notoriously lost my virginity the previous year, one of the first girls in our class to do so). Though we still only shared the occasional walk to and from school–I got rides from boys with cars whenever offered–we were finally having two-way conversations again. Susan’s perma-scowl receded from her clear, makeupless face, replaced with a giddiness I hadn’t seen since we last opened my costume chest and put puffy green wigs on. Then, as suddenly as the onset of her glee, Susan stopped walking to school.

My mother knew before I did. She sat me down at the kitchen table one night when I returned from a party slightly buzzed and sporting swollen lips. “Susan’s mom called,” she said, a full ashtray in front of her. “Susan’s pregnant.”

By the time she began to show, in the middle of our senior year, Susan had become nearly invisible to the rest of our high school’s twelve hundred students. She recently made a crack about how she showed up to Economics in sweatshirts to hide her growing belly, and nobody noticed anything different about her, that her slightness had ballooned underneath those layers of fleece. Only a handful of her closest friends knew she was going to have a baby, and maybe because it was Susan, because our friendship had become something private and compartmentalized from the rest of my social life, I was actually able to keep her secret. She gave birth to her son, Devin, in early spring, finished her coursework from home, and graduated on time. To this day, I bet plenty of people from the Class of 2000 still have no clue there was such a scandal among them.

I visited Susan in the hospital the day after she gave birth. My mother has a picture of me holding Devin, a garish shade of purple adorning my lips. I clearly attempted to straighten my curly hair, which hangs in a bushy ponytail down my back. The red sweater I’m wearing is the cropped style popular that year, a terrible cut for my high waist and hips. In trying to look like everyone else, I just look ridiculous.

It’s funny how people grow apart only to grow closer again. In the years after high school, when I went to college and then graduate school, and Susan and Bob had four more boys together, I shed most of the friends I had back home. I have no idea what those Lindsays and Lauras are doing now, though I bet they think back on high school and scoff at their former selves, too. I don’t know if it’s quite the same for boys, but girls from suburbia have a giant orbit of self-knowledge. It leads them out into the nothingness of identity and only very slowly draws them back into something recognizable, something that feels right again. Few of us escape the pull of that orbit. But Susan did.

Susan and Bob got married by a justice of the peace almost a year after Devin was born. My mother and I both attended. I felt honored to be invited to the small, informal ceremony, to eat cake at Susan’s mother’s house afterward, the house now fully paid off. As her grandsons came into the world–first Devin, and then Cooper, Mason, Jaxon, and newborn Kaiser–Susan’s mother would take the money she scrimped and saved through years of wanting, and help Susan and Bob buy a house in the country where their family could stake a small, but rich claim of the world together.

I now teach freshman writing and learning skills development at a private liberal arts college about an hour from where Susan and I grew up. School, as it always did, continues to structure my life, offering me routine, offering me chances to outshine others and accumulate praise, chances to belong to a group of like-minded people, academics nowadays. Other than my half-identity as a struggling writer, I’m as conventional as they come–educated, ambitious, and now, newly married to an equally educated and ambitious man. If my husband and I have a child before I turn thirty, we’ll positively reek of normalcy. Susan will barf.

For her part, Susan’s Facebook page does the finest job describing where she has landed:

I am who I am and I won’t apologize for it. ;-)

I am an against the grain, on the fringe, vegan, breastfeeding, baby wearing, sleep sharing, non vaccinating, unschooling, pagan, hippy mama to 5 awesome boys. I couldn’t have said all that even four years ago. I am always educating myself so that I can make the best choices for my family.

I am married to my partner, my soulmate, my strength, my rock, my best friend. I am one very happy girl.

Susan uses the term “unschooling” for the education her five boys receive at home. It’s unstructured for sure–no lesson plans, no exams, no formalizing of any kind, even in a basement or garage classroom. Her children learn by living, as Susan says, helping their mother total grocery bills, helping their father restore vehicles, helping their grandmother garden. If you subscribe to the rigors of conventional education, like most Americans, you might be unsettled by this learning design, or non-design. As a teacher, I didn’t quite know what to make of it either, though I certainly knew better than to question Susan’s decision. She would have told me to fuck off and mind my own business.

But I’ve spent time with Susan’s family, especially since my husband and I moved back to upstate New York, especially since I’ve realized that the people who love you best are the ones who don’t expect you to be just like them, like Susan, like my mother. Bob had an art show at a local bookstore last summer. I stopped by to show support and say hi to my old friend, my first adopted sibling, my only twin. Susan had her hands full with Jaxon, her two-year-old, who had just discovered that pulling his pants down in public is funny. We stood around hiking up Jaxon’s britches and catching up, when suddenly her oldest, Devin, appeared at her side wearing a deeply familiar look. He had something behind his back, something he was about to ask for. I half-expected him to slip Susan a note.

Susan pointed her upturned nose at whatever Devin was holding. “Whatcha got there?” she said.

Devin showed her. “Mom, do you think we could get these? Please?”

Susan inspected the goods, then smiled and handed them to me. They were floppy, glossy-covered workbooks, just like we used in grade school. Math workbooks, to be exact, fifth grade level. Devin was ten.

If you think Susan’s unconventional schooling methods don’t work, you might have to reconsider. Not only do Devin and his brothers exhibit high intelligence and endless curiosity, but Susan thinks about education constantly. Her Facebook page is packed with links about homeschooling, or unschooling, stuff she devours in her spare time. Strangely, her belief in practical learning–the stuff of life–isn’t all that dissimilar to my interest in experiential learning at the collegiate level. But I’m sure we’ll have that debate the next time we get together, and Susan’s sharp tongue will sting at least once, even if I no longer cry about it.

We celebrated our mutual 29th birthday last week. While I got married last October to a man who, other than the heavy metal, kind of reminds me of Bob, Susan and Bob recently celebrated ten years of marriage and the birth of their fifth son. My twin sister may be fourteen hours and six minutes older than me, but those hours might as well be years, both in experience and in her sense of self. I still agonize over some hallway exchange with a colleague, some email with an indiscernible tone. Not Susan. She knows who loves her, the real her. She knows that a few blessed, precious things are, against all odds, permanent.

The Brown family at Christmas last year.

 

 

 

Rich Ferguson - More Cowbell!

Street poet, cadence carpenter Rich Ferguson (Where I Come From), who could somehow make enchiladas relevant in the post-post-modern jib jabs of verse, rhythm, and rhyme, is an American spoken word artist to behold. Street meets soul as if a lingering piece of San Fran gold mysteriously appearing from the gluts of the LA Basin, liquefied reverb, straw cap, cawing through air spaces in his gums, “The Earthquake is Here! Where’s the Kick Drum?”

Tapping into the arterial vein of Los Angeles street life, Ferguson’s poetry oozes raw emotion with a pink underbelly. Be it the “boom-boom beat of all these bombs dropping” after the loss of a dear friend or the recollection of one night’s cross-dressing exploits (“The panty hose was the hardest to get on. Every inch of the way, the elastic material constricted movement, bound blood, itched the skin”), Ferguson’s inimitable interplay of lyric and language, culture possessed and exorcised by words and wordsmiths, haunted shadows on sidewalks, beckons the listener/reader line by line to sway side to side like a healed Stevie Wonder to the beat of a song wholly his own in statu nascendi inter spem et metum.

Ferguson has studied poetry alongside the poetic voice of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg (Howl), shared a stage with the likes of the Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith (Horses), and even recently appeared—as in Monday, July 12, 2010 recent—on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” accompanying musical guest Tracy Bonham (Masts of Manhatta). If you thought the cowbell went out of style with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, think again. Ferguson could play the spoons or a musical instrument made from the cardboard remains of a toilet paper tube, strung tight with rubber bands, and you would still be hypnotized by a soulful magician not to be confused with Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson.

Ferguson’s words are not silky smooth like white clouds in blue skies peppered with pretty birds singing love sonnets. The man is less Wordsworth and more Whitman. Whitman 2.0, 2010, Los Angeles, California. Rough to the touch like sandpaper grit that picks at the epidermal layer of your skin in little square, flaky bits.

Cue Clark Griswold. Drum roll please . . . .


*

THE INTERVIEW

JEFFREY PILLOW: First Rich, thanks for taking the time to dissolve this East Coast/West Coast beef between Biggie and Pac and talk with me. How would you describe the parallel of music, rhythm, and rhyme in your spoken word/poetry?

RICH FERGUSON: Before I began performing spoken word on a fairly regular basis I started out as a musician. Drums were my first instrument. I gradually moved on to singing lead, and later learned how to play the guitar so I could write songs. Over the years while playing music in various rock bands, I was always doing spoken word on the side. Sometimes within the band as well. During those years of training, rhythm and rhyme was obviously a big part of my diet. Once I began performing spoken word, and writing material for performance, I found that some of those skills crossed over quite naturally into the material. In regards to spoken word, however, I’ve been very fortunate to have people champion my work. One person that comes to mind is Bob Holman. He’s a fantastic NYC poet/educator. I feel very blessed to have him in my life. He’s really opened quite a few doors for me in regards to performing opportunities and meeting various writers over the years.

JP: I believe it was Duke [Haney] who said this once over at The Nervous Breakdown, though I may be misquoting him (or someone else if it wasn’t Duke), that music was the creative instigator, that it all started with music at a young age. Music does that, doesn’t it? Sends a pulse right through your veins. It only takes one song during the years of teenage angst to send you on a path where you never look back.

RF: Yeah, I’d say that music was a definite creative instigator for me as well. From a very early age, as early as 3 or so, I was always listening to the FM radio and beating the hell out of the naugahyde sofa, and singing along at the top of my lungs–even when I didn’t know the words. Music’s always been the engine that has fueled me throughout life. I’ve been very fortunate to play music as well. And when I say fortunate, not only do I feel it’s been such a blessing to play music, but I’ve also had the good fortune to meet some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known through the experience of playing music. That gift led me quite naturally into performing spoken word. Whether I’m playing or recording with actual musicians, or performing by myself, I always aspire to bring a certain musicality to everything I say and how I say it.

JP: Influences? Anything really: music, fiction writers, nonfiction, neighbors, oddballs, circus clowns, carnies, et cetera.

RF: Musical influences: I get a lot of crap for this one, but Rush is really one of my first musical influences. Or I should say that Neil Peart is the guy that got me interested in playing drums. Terry Bozzio is another drummer that’s been a big influence over the years. I actually had the extreme good fortune and honor to meet him last year and collaborate with him on a spoken word/music video piece entitled, “From Within to Without.” I think it’s on my YouTube page.

Fiction writers: I love Raymond Carver. Not so much because I feel like I write like him. Mainly because I don’t write like him. Let me explain . . . sometimes I feel like I use way too many words to get my point across. Carver is one of those writers that is able to go straight for the heart, straight for the jugular vein in the fewest words. His work is very lean and to the point. I admire that greatly.

JP: I hear ya’. I’ve tried to train myself to not be so longwinded yet I still fail miserably. I get it from my Mama. That woman can straight release some words from her gut, which is fairly amazing since she has a blib on one of her lungs. Collapsed way back when from blowing up a pool float.

Your thoughts on pool floats or other inflatable devices?

RF: So sorry to hear that your mom had such a hard time with that pool float. As for me, I can’t recall a problem with pool floats or inflatable devices. Now that I think of it, though, not long ago I went to see Brad Listi interview Chuck Palahniuk here in L.A. During the course of the interview, Chuck threw some inflatable toys into the audience. Some were huge Oscar-like statues. Others were giant-sized hearts. Everyone in the audience–and we’re talking a pretty big theater–were huffing and puffing trying to blow up these toys. Me, I damn near thought I was going to get a collapsed lung while blowing up that heart. But I made it. In fact, I currently have it sitting in my living room.

JP: Sorry, sorry. Influences, yes. Back to that.

RF: There are other writers that I love reading for inspiration: Neruda, Rilke, Rumi. I love the mystical and lyrical nature of their voices. I also enjoy the poetry of Patti Smith, Mayakovsky, and Saul Williams.

A couple other fiction writers I enjoy: Richard Brautigan, George Saunders, and Mark Richard. I just love their sense of imagination and word play.

In regards to other inspirations: Heck, inspiration is all around in everyday life. I’m trying to get better at picking up the clues.

JP: Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, I have to ask: Patti Smith . . . you once performed on the same stage with her. What was this experience like?

RF: Performing with Patti Smith was amazing. A dream come true, really. The amazing NYC poet, Bob Holman, was the mastermind that put that show together. The only thing that could’ve made the evening even better would’ve been having the opportunity to hang out with Patti and pick her brain a bit about her experiences and let her know how much she’s influenced not only my creative work, but my life. But she was pretty much keeping to herself that evening, so I didn’t bug her.

JP: And [Allen] Ginsberg? Jeez man, you studied with Ginsberg? I keep a copy of Howl and Other Poems at my cube at work. I jokingly said to my wife when I started writing for TNB that the crowd there is like The Beat Generation: 21st Century Edition starring [Brad] Listi as Jack Kerouac, and if anyone should play Ginsberg then it’s gotta be Rich.

RF: Frankly, I don’t think I should be the one playing Ginsberg. Actually, that should be another TNB contributor: Milo Martin. Some years ago when he was living in S.F. he was propositioned by Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore. Milo graciously refused the offer. Still, near blowjobs over writing workshops–I think that officially puts Milo at a lesser degree of separation from Allen than me.

JP: How are you different than Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson, the magician?

RF: This is a funny question. I never became aware of this guy until someone once wrote me and said: “So I googled your name and this magician guy came up. Some other guy named Rich Ferguson.” I did a little bit of investigating and saw that this guy has TONS of videos on YouTube and stuff. In fact, I think when you google the name Rich Ferguson, his name comes up before mine. At one point, when you googled the name, he came up, I came up, then there was this cross-dresser in London that also came up. Since then, I think the London cross-dresser has changed his name. I think he was really starting to feel the heat. Ultimately, it’s one of the my life ambitions to beat the magician Rich Ferguson in the Google pool. I actually spoke to him once on the phone, and we had a great conversation. He’s a super sweet guy.

Jeffrey Dahmer Pillow

JP: I feel ya’ Rich. It took me a while to climb Google’s ladder too. Back in the day, the first search results you’d get when you googled me were Jeffrey Dahmer pillows and Jeff Gordon pillows. But no more. The Jeffrey Dahmer pillows still trump me sometimes in the Google Images search. Unfortunately for some likely cannibals and future serial killers out there, they sadly come upon my website from time to time when searching for Jeffrey Dahmer collectibles. Google Analytics has clued me in.

I had to ask about The Ice Breaker. When I was doing research for my article, the magic man appeared. I think as me and Greg [Olear] discussed once, when you do a search of Brad and The Nervous Breakdown, you get links to a Brad Paisley song of the same name . . . .

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a dozen times already but how was the experience on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?’ You were groovin’ dude. In synch hand claps. The cow bell. You were straight jamming on stage.

RF: The Leno experience was great. The crew was great. The band that I played with [Tracy Bonham] was amazing. Here’s the thing, though. There’s a tremendous amount of waiting around. That’s the one thing I wasn’t prepared for. I got there at 9:30 a.m. There was a sound check at 11:00. Then there was a lunch break. At 1:30 we did a tech run-through with cameras. Then we had to sit around until 4:45 when we did the actually taping. Yeah, the most challenging part of the whole deal was to have to sit around for all that time, then when they said, “You’re on” you really had to be on. Because we basically just had one shot at the whole thing.

JP: Well, you guys damn sure nailed it . . . .

What’s a good web address where folks can listen to your work?

RF: Two places where people can check out my spoken word/music tracks and videos are MySpace (www.myspace.com/richferguson) and YouTube (www.youtube.com/fuzzydoodah).

JP: One last thing, Mrs. Butterworth or Aunt Jemima? Who makes the best maple syrup? Inquiring minds want to know.

RF: I’ll go with Aunt Jemima. If for no other reason than I grew up with her. Gotta stay loyal to my homegirl. She gave me many fine, sweet mornings during childhood breakfasts.

JP: Thanks for your time Rich. Best of luck in your continuing beat in the literary world.



RICH FERGUSON has performed across the country and has been heard on many radio stations, including WBAI in New York City, KCRW and KPFK in Southern California, and World Radio. He has shared the same stage with Patti Smith and Janet Hamill, Exene Cervenka, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Holly Prado, and many other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed at the Redcat Theater in Disney Hall, the Electric Lodge (Venice, CA), The Knitting Factory (NYC & LA), the South by Southwest Music Festival, the North By Northwest Music Festival, the Henry Miller Library, Tongue and Groove, Beyond Baroque, and the Topanga Film Festival. On the college circuit he has performed at UC Irvine, UC-Santa Barbara, UCLA, El Camino College, and Cal State Northridge. He is a featured performer in the sequel to the film 1 Giant Leap. It’s called What About Me, and also features Michael Stipe, Michael Franti, K.D. Lang, Krishna Das, and others. Ferguson has studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg and fiction writing with Aimee Bender and Sid Stebel. In addition, he has been published in the LA TIMES, spotlighted on PBS (Egg: The Art Show), is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, and his spoken word/music CD, entitled Where I Come From, was produced by Herb Graham Jr. (John Cale, Macy Gray).

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.

DAY 1

After exchanging the obligatory pleasantries, I sat down at his desk across from him.

I explained to the man that I hadn’t been to a dentist since I moved here, over four years ago. I assured him that I flossed pretty regularly and had a pretty good diet and that, apart from the fact that I was in the bitter two-week psychological throes of quitting smoking, that nothing really alarmed me bucal-wise or was noteworthy.

He stood up and directed me to the chair.

Everything about the man was broad. His head was wide but properly aligned. I’d say he was in his early 50s. His belly commanded respect and signaled the direction he wanted you to go.

The soft drone of its motor filled the office.

I eased back into a supine human horizon.

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The light illuminated my widely opened mouth and in went the metal objects: the little circular mirror and elongated metal toothpick with the extension cord.

He poked around a bit, mentioned something to his assistant, a young olive-skinned woman named Susana. He was about to put the objects back into my mouth when he stopped and said a sentence that included the word ongos, or mushrooms.

I couldn’t be sure but it it sounded like he said something to the effect of, “It’s absolutely amazing the amount of fungii that live in our mouths. It’s like an enormous planet of its own existing in there.”

He sounded like he was smiling underneath his face mask, like what he just said was a revelation that had never occurred to him before I became supine and he stuck his gloved hands in my mouth.

He started calling out numbers to his assistant who quickly annotated them in my peripheral vision.

“Do you wet your toothbrush before brushing your teeth?”

Sí.

He chuckled and then spoke in metaphors behind his mask: “If you go hiking in the woods and your shoes get really dirty – how do you clean them? You use a shoe brush, of course, but do you wet it first? No, you don’t. Why? Because wetting a brush before brushing is like turning dirt into mud. You’re just spreading it around.”

Pués, la verdad es que nunca me lo he fijado.

“So stop wetting your brush before you brush your teeth.”

Vale.

“Do you rinse?”

Por supuesto.

“You need to start filling a small cup with 2 parts tap water and 1 part oxidized water.”

Agua oxigenado?

“Yes, swish it around in your mouth for a least a minute and spit it out.”

Ok.

“But don’t rinse with regular tap water after. Just leave it in there.”

Y Listerine? Puedo utilizarlo – no?

“You can but it’s pretty expensive and not good for your stomach.”

Pero no lo traigo.
“But I don’t swallow it.

“The choice is yours.”

The motor’s drone started and soon I was upright.

He explained they needed an x-ray and that I should go and get one as soon as I could, then make another appointment.

I walked out of his office, my head filled with mushrooms and hydrogen peroxide.

That night I brushed my teeth without wetting the bristles for the first time. My mouth produced enough salivia to make it one of the most fulfilling and serendipitous brushings I’ve ever had.

***

DAY 2

A week later, I slide the x-ray across the desk. His thick spectacles were nestled comfortably at the end of his nose and the upper rim divided his pupils into two planes.

He looked down at the little chart of my mouth with my numbered teeth, then up at the x-ray.

He looked down and up again.

I sat in silence, wanting to say something.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up.

He looked like someone famous, a Latin American writer.

Down, up and down and up he looked.

Gabby Marquéz?

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Perhaps. Sans ‘stache and with boxed spectacles.

A minute passed while he was comparing the x-ray to the paper teeth chart.

He finally spoke: “Número treinta y tres, veinte y cuatro…y…cuarenta y siete son sospechosos. Parecen interrogantes.”

Certain numbered teeth were suspicious. They had interrogators in there and needed to come out or be filled or muted or whatever dentists in Spain to with interrogators.

“You have three cavities, he said, two small ones and one bigger one.”

Damn.

“Schedule another appointment and we’ll get them taken care of.”

I hate to admit this but I didn’t love Cien Años de Soledad very much. His short stories are hard to match but that book was exasperatingly long and magically neutral for me. I do, however, think I understand why it’s considered a modern masterpiece and hold no ill-will toward people who esteem it so.

***

DAY 3

“Susana’s not here today,” he said, “so we’re only going to fill one of your cavities. You can come back when she’s here.”

I laid back in the chair and he put on the gloves and mask.

He poked at my teeth: “There it is.”

He pulled out various jars of cream and a needle and placed them on the swivel table that was dangerously close to the chair. He reached over and grabbed what looked a futuristic hair dryer, only it was for teeth. He set it on his lap.

“A woman came to my office last year and she had a yellow tongue and was complaining about how bad her breath was. So I put my hand on her stomach for a second and felt pockets of air. I asked her how often she went to the bathroom and she said once a week. Once a week? How often to do you eat? She said every day about 2 or 3 times per day. Well you should go to the bathroom at least that many times. Or at least twice. You can’t shit just once a week. “

Why are you telling me this?

“Do you know what she did? She complained to the head office that I was attempting to touch her. She also said that I invited her to a party.”

Well, you did lay your hand on her stomach. And you are a dentist, not a doctor.

“But I’m a doctor too. I’ve studied Eastern medicines.”

Uh. Huh.

“My boss called me in after that and interrogated me, asked if I was trying to pawn off this new-age claptrap on my patients. I told him that a fusion of Eastern and Western medicine would save the world from suffering. Have you ever read a book called ‘Meditation as Medicine‘?”

He pried my mouth open, sticking two mini cotton tubes in and started drilling.

“Our bodies are comprised of energy. Have you ever been talking to someone and suddenly you feel that you don’t like this person, you don’t like the energy he or she is giving off?

I think I know exactly what you are talking about at this very moment.

“Well those are poles clashing.”

The sound and sensation of metal drills on teeth rank up there next to sticking my hand into my Proctor-Selex blender set to level six, puree.

“There is aligned and misaligned energy. If you are in touch with your energy and you know how to channel it, your potentialities are limitless. I once saw a woman who had a brain tumor the size of an egg. She channeled her energy fully on the tumor and it was gone in four days.”

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That’s incredible.

“I have a friend who’s a doctor in the US named Deepak Chopra and I was on a retreat with him and some other dentists. All the other dentists were textbook Western practitioners. Deepak and I were discussing channeling energy and how if much of the world had this insight, many of the problems in the world would cease to exist.”

Deepak Chopra is a dentist?

“So these dentist naysayers were making fun of us when we were outside talking about this and he told them, ‘Pick a rock’, which they did. He looked at it, focused his energy, aligned it and the rock exploded.”

That’s incredulous.

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He stopped drilling, took his thumb and pressed down decisively on the soft part under my tongue, a part which, when I think about it, has probably never been consciously touched by anyone.

I wondered if he was trying to align my energy, and if he was, that it was somewhat discomforting.

He took the tooth dryer and began drying off the filling.

You’re not Spanish – aren’t you?

“No, I’m Columbian.”

Marquéz for sure.

The room started to fill up with something.

I felt imbued with positivity in spite of all his chaotic malapropisms.

He returned me to my normal sitting position.

“There you go. Listen, the world is full of things you would never believe. There’s this thing called Tantric sex where it recycles the natural energy in one’s body. Talk about alignment. The thing is you can’t ejaculate.”

Please stop.

“When you ejaculate, all of the energy or ‘chi’ as they call it gushes forth. In that gush lies much of your energy and pretty much all of your alignment.”

I know, I read ‘The Multi-Orgasmic Man’.

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Well, most of it. Skimmed through some parts.

“So you can have full body orgasms, you just can’t ejaculate. It’s absolutely–”

Please.

“incredible. Tell you what – I’ll bring you this book ‘Meditation as Medicine’ when you come in for your next appointment. When will you be back – next week? How about Tuesday at noon?”

Stop.


So there I was, one testicle deep in the world of Spanish porn, unsure as to how I got there.

It began back in October of 2005 when I saw an article in El Mundo (a right-leaning major daily periodical) and a full-page ad in a reputable national music magazine for Follar Tour: La Gira del Infierno (Fuck Tour: The Tour from Hell).

According the website and ads, an entourage of real people—which ostensibly means people who aren’t porn stars—tour various cities throughout Spain and Portugal and engage in coitus on stage or within roped-off areas as the public looked on en masse.

Coitus?

I initially thought these events only happened in the American subculture that is hedonistic Southern Cali in private houses where seemingly normal people get together and grope, pull and penetrate strangers with invitations.

But no, this was not merely a swingers subculture or phenomenon.

It was something more insidious.

Tickets were 40 euros per chico, 25 euros per pareja (couple) and chicas got in free.

Eye-brow raising titles to events included:
“sex boxing”
“pool sex”
“uniformed exhibition”

As well as your standard hardcore completely-devoid-of-erotica in any way:
“gang bang”
“threesomes”
“facials”

In all, there were supposed to be 35 events along with DJs and live bands starting at noon and ending at midnight.

This was to be held in November 2005 at La Riviera, a covered dome where I’ve drank beer many times before and been wowed by such acts as Wilco, LCD Soundsystem, and Jane’s Addiction (and one time seriously disappointed by Jack Johnson) since I moved here.

I almost went to this, somewhat out of curiosity but more in hopes of selling the idea to any one of the trendy Maxim-style offshoots such as FHM, Stuff, and Loaded.

I even queried Penthouse and Hustler.

Hustler pays about $1,000/article.

That’s a lotta cabbage, let me tell you.

But a good friend was visiting me from the states that weekend and I didn’t think this was the kind of sightseeing she would’ve had in mind.

Several reports corroborated a lackluster outcome:

No one showed up until 5 pm.

Low ticket sales and a disproportionate number of men put the massive public orgy into slow-starter mode.

Music was intermittent–since initially there was really no one there to place music for–and later it was spotty, sometimes not having a DJ or band for up to two hours at a time.

And it ended early.

If the first follar tour was a failure, you couldn’t tell.

Several months later, Exposex billboards began popping up all over Madrid.

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Then, the next day, as I’m thinking about what all this odd exhibitionist sexual behaviour means, a strange email comes into my inbox.

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A Spanish porn actor, Whilly, was looking to get his website translated.

In exchange, he couldn’t pay me but he offered the possibility of witnessing one of his scenes being filmed.

I really didn’t want to see porn being filmed, but I thought there might be a story in it.

So in pursuit of amateur journalistic excellence and a few emails back and forth, we met for a drink in his flat.

He offered me a beer, which I accepted graciously.

He drank orange juice and wiped his palms on his jeans twice.

He checked his cell phone.

The apartment looked like it hadn’t been dusted or cleaned properly since he moved in, nor had he spent any time considering how to best utilize what little space there was.

In explaining this, he revealed that Barcelona was his hometown and he sometimes goes back to film scenes there.

He stays with his family.

They don’t know what he really does.

His phone rang, he answered it and politely said that he couldn’t speak right now because he was busy.

“I’m with a friend,” he said.

He hung up and explained something: he considers his life somewhat difficult because he usually answers his phone by his screen name, which is (errr—I highly recommend you don’t visit the following link if you are under 18 or offended by porn) Whilly Foc.

Of course, when friends or family call, he has to make sure to answer it coolly and reply to any questions about life as if life is normal at the bank.

He used to work at a bank.

He showed me his latest doctor-signed STD certificate–to prove that he was clean.

Sure enough, he was “clean”.

He then said that the previous offer of getting me into a shoot was off the table.

Getting a director to agree to allowing a journalist be present during the filming of a scene is extremely difficult.

So in exchange for translating his website, he would be able to get me into this upcoming ExpoSex conference.

“The world of porn”, he explained as he pulled out his phone again to check the time, “is very closed. This expo is the first of its kind in Madrid and I can get you interviews with actresses or actors, even directors.”

He wiped his palms and looked up at me and smiled.

“Hell, if you want, you can get up on stage and fuck a girl.”

I respectfully declined this offer but said that I was interested in the interviews—for the article.

For what felt like the 10th time in 20 minutes, he looked at his phone.

“I’m waiting for a call from a director,” he said.

“The thing about this business is that you have to be on call and ready to be somewhere within an hour.”

No wonder he quit working at the bank.

As I was about to leave, he opened up his dusty laptop and said, “Have you seen any of my scenes yet?”

“Ahh, no. I’ve seen the pictures on your website from your scenes though.”

Wrong answer.

I should’ve said Yes, I’m a huge fan.

Low and behold, he fires one up.

“It’s with this Romanian girl,” he explained, “who is morbid.”

Morbid (or morbosa in Spanish) means she’s nasty, that she’s really into it.

So there we were Whilly and I, in his apartment, watching one of his scenes with a morbid girl.

Foreplay was peaking and I couldn’t really do anything but watch the screen in silence, with him.

If I looked toward him, it would be awkward; if I looked away, it would somehow seem that I wasn’t interested in Whilly the “actor” as my lurid-Spanish-human-interest-piece-for-Stuff.

“Look at the way she does that. Isn’t that incredible?”

“Yep.” I answered.

The video, he revealed, took over an hour to shoot and the final scene was anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes long.

He wondered what they did with all the excess.

He skipped through much of it, showing me the highlights.

I nodded in agreement and offered the occasional “uh-huh”; he wiped his palms.

Whilly Foc looks like this in every photo I’ve seen of him.

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He dons a broad, schoolboyish smile on his wide face and a thumb is up.

Always way up.

Sometimes he points (with his index finger) directly at the person he’s next to and extends his thumb up without even trying.

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Either way, the thumb is up.

So I accepted the invitation to ExpoSex, an ultra-trashy sort of Oscars for the world of Spanish porn.

Its objective, according to the website, is “to normalize the sector at all levels, cinematographic, distribution, industrial, etc.” and to provide “an integral meeting point for people in the business, including the public.”

It was held in a now defunct bullfighting ring an hour outside of Madrid.

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Inside, there were four stages and a slew of stands with all types of standard pornography (thousands and thousands of DVDs and videos), sexual toys, penis enlargement kits and all other types of tangible spam related to this business.

A woman, dressed head to toe in a black leather suit, looked like a mannequin.
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Normally mannequins look like women.

A naked woman leaped and sprang on stage to a rock band behind her.

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There was no singer.

A strip tease act by a porn actress picked a manfan from the audience and put him in a chair…

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…while a pop song repeated the chorus melodramatically: “Nothing is better than your love.”

Finally, after being there for two hours, Whilly introduced me to an actress.

Her name was Alba Sanz.

After seven years of being in the business, she sees no reason to get out of it.

After such time, she is still getting nominations for “best actress”, like this year, and thinks that she has a good four or five years left in her.

The interview was conducted at a table situated directly in front of a large plasma TV where a film–her film–was being shown.

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It was the one for which she was nominated as best actress.

I found it difficult to maintain eye contact with this plasmatic distraction pulsating in the background.

I asked if I could have a photo of her trying to look sexy.

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I didn’t have the heart to ask for another one.

She looked wholly spent by years in front of cameras that had sucked every last drop of soul she had left in her.

She didn’t look demeaned or exploited but simply hollow.

A shadow of her original self from when she began in this business.

Sex was just her job.

I wondered when was the last time she had sex for the in-itself enjoyment of it or if she had ever had sex that allowed her to feel interconnected to someone.

Or when was the last time she had sex without a camera recording every action.

An elephantine sensation of pity covered me.

I felt a sudden urge to escape.

Almost three hours in a sex-filled porn-worshipping dome and seeing the general public all together  in this “integral meeting point”, I was exhausted.

On the way out, a fetish crew had wrapped a man in plastic like a piece of luggage in an airport.

They were deciding what to do with him.

The crowd seemed to take notice when the woman pulled out a clothespin and tried to attach it to his nipple.

Then a man started burning a candle behind them, grinning maniacally.

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(Of particular interest are the crowd in the back—now rather alert—and the perplexed expression of the bald man on the left and the short 60 year-old red-haired woman who hasn’t quite grasped the essence of what’s going on.)

I’ve never understood S&M and after witnessing this, I am sure I never will.

After the show, I came home and got a message from Whilly saying that he had won best actor.

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(I wonder if the trophy’s raised arm had its thumb up. And it seems very odd yet quite fitting that he looks like a human-sized thumb pointing skyward.)

He invited me over for another drink to discuss his future plans for the website.

I politely declined.

I’d had enough of erotic-less sex tours for one lifetime.

But Whilly was now widow-peak deep in that world.

And that this most certainly meant more scenes, trophies, tours, conferences, excess and undoubtably many, many more thumbs up…

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Good luck Whilly.