PATRICK STEPHENSON

Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

Duathlon

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On a lark—inspired by my hypnotherapist friend Susan Just—I signed up for a duathlon this week. It’s the Team Ortho Minneapolis Duathlon, with a 5K run, an 18-mile bike ride, and another 5K run. The event takes place on August 31, a month away!, and I’m not much of a runner, so I must train as much as possible. It doesn’t seem too intimidating, but I want to ensure I’m prepared. For the biking, I’m riding my red, year-old single speed. I’ll keep you updated on my progress—and updated on whether I stick with this.

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Written by patiomensch

July 25, 2009 at 9:49 am

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The Double Life Is Twice As Good: Book Review

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I wrote this for Identity Theory in July 2009.

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The cover photo of Jonathan Ames’ The Double Life Is Twice as Good poses the book as a pugilistic battle between Ames’ dual dueling selves: the “novelist” and the “journalist and essayist.” The writer of fiction and the non-fiction writer. Recalling Raging Bull, the photo’s a nostalgic black and white; gloved up, the two Ames—novelist v. essayist—are in a boxing ring, and the crowd for their match is blacked out, absent.

Both Ames are well-muscled, and one has just landed a massive punch. Some large post-punch spittle flies from his opponent’s mouth. Which of the two Ames landed the punch? Which one is receiving it? Is one Ames victorious? Is this a KO? And why are the Ames fighting at all? Isn’t—per the title—the “double life” a “good” thing? Remove the boxing gloves, Ames(s). Be at peace with your selves.

With this release, Jonathan Ames’ fictional and non-fictional halves become equally matched. Ames has written four novels: I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man (soon to be a film starring Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Paul Dano and Katie Holmes), Wake Up, Sir! and The Alcoholic (a graphic novel). Including The Double Life, Ames has written four collections of non-fiction/short fiction: I Love You More Than You Know, My Less Than Secret Life and What’s Not To Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer.

“I am no longer young,” writes Ames in this collection, “but I am still mildly perverted, though with less energy.” The new book is similar to the old in that it’s a series of adventures: large, small, sexual, otherwise. Because Ames, the solipsistic pervert raconteur, is at the center of all of his work, enjoying his writing depends on enjoying his persona. It’s one defined by poetic obsessions—with being Jewish, with women’s bodies, and with Ames’ attractiveness or lack thereof, among other things, including excretions and masturbation.

In one Double Life story, Ames compares himself to Lenny Kravitz: “We’re both forty-three, but he’s a multimillionaire and I have no money in the bank… He’s a sexual icon … and I’m bald and my front false tooth has turned brown from coffee.” Concludes Ames, “I may be ugly and poor, but at least I’ll be taller than Lenny Kravitz.” But of course, when the two meet—”a Rock Star and One More Annoying Journalist”—Kravitz is “taller than me!” Which prompts Ames to wonder if Kravitz is wearing lifts in his boots.

The stories in Double Life thrust this insecure persona into fictional or non-fictional scenarios. “Bored to Death,” an opening mini-novelette wherein Ames becomes a private detective, is the best of the bunch. The story was originally published in McSweeney’s,  and like much of Ames’ fiction, features a main-character variation of Ames the man—a poor writer, addicted to booze, Internet backgammon, and sex, drawing auctorial inspiration this time from Hammett, Goodis, Chandler, Thompson, “the usual suspects, as it were”—in a hard-boiled, detective-novel milieu.

Ames used the same technique in Wake Up, Sir!, his hilarious modern take on P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels, but with Ames—as Alan Blair, a novelist en route to and languishing at Yaddo and suffering from a severe nose fetish—in the Wooster role. All this alongside a superpowered, perhaps-imaginary Jeeves straight from the Wodehouse. Like Don Quixote, one of Ames’ favorite characters, he loves these stories so much he forces his way into them—and gets beaten up nearly as much as Quixote. Once in, Ames imitates and absorbs not only the settings and the characters of his fixations but the writing styles, too.

Thus, the writing in “Bored to Death” is punchy. “The trouble happened,” begins Ames, “because I was bored. At the time, I was twenty-eight days sober. I was spending my nights playing Internet backgammon. I should have been going to AA meetings, but I wasn’t.” To relieve his boredom, Ames (the fictional character) posts an ad on craigslist, pretending to be what he is not: “Private Detective for Hire … I’m not licensed, but maybe I’m someone who can help you. My fee is reasonable.” Six days later, by which time he’s forgotten he posted the ad, Ames receives his first client call in the middle of a backgammon game.

Though the call fulfills his private-detective fantasy, Ames hesitates to end his game: “If I resigned, which is the same thing as losing… my ranking would go down, and I hate for my ranking to go down. I’ve worked very hard to get it to the second-highest level.” But he ends the game. His new client is a college girl searching for her sister. “She started slow and then her speech came fast,” writes Ames, “real fast, the way young girls talk.” This prose is at once funnily parodic and perfectly sincere. “Everything will be okay,” he tells the girl. “I’ll find your sister.”

From there, Ames assumes the role, or at least the appearance, of a private dick: “I put on a tie, loosened it at the collar, and undid the top bottom to give myself a rumpled world-weary private-detective look, and I threw on my gray-tweed Brooks Brothers sport coat, since there was a slight chill in the air. Also, on all the covers of my Chandler novels, Philip Marlowe, the great private detective, is always wearing a sport coat.” Ames concludes, “I felt, overall, quite capable of finding this missing NYU coed, at least wardrobe-wise.”

Best not to ruin what happens next—this is a mystery—but Ames plays the part well, for awhile. He questions and bribes bartenders. He faces mobsters and beat-down men. He sees his first dead body, an ODed rocker, and feeds an abandoned dog. Up until the end, Ames could’ve convinced us the story was true, but dangerous circumstances force him to take action in a way no Amesian character ever has. Guns are involved, and it’s shocking and wonderful. This reader would love a novel or several about this character. Instead, the story’s being translated by Ames into a TV series on HBO, with Jason Schwartzman as the pretend P.I.

Unfortunately, “Bored to Death” is the collection’s height, and it comes first. Downhill from there, as they say. The rest of the book is divided into three sections: “Journalism,” “Personal Essays” and “Short Stories,” and no other piece matches the joy of “Bored to Death.”

The Journalism section finds Ames playing amateur anthropologist, sent by various publications to visit places or meet people and describe them in his usual edgy and self-absorbed fashion.

The highlight is “Middle-American Gothic,” where Ames attends Gothicfest 2005, “an all-day gathering of twenty Goth bands in Villa Park, Illinois, a distant suburb of Chicago.” There, a DJ plays “pounding, scary music” and Ames is surrounded by skinheads and people in “Halloweenish costumes” who make him fantasize about “being beaten to death as an intruder, getting kicked repeatedly while lying on the ground.” But Ames finds the gentleness beneath the darkness. One Goth has a “sweet, open face.” Another has a “cherubic face, but his eyes, which are circled with black eyeliner, are wounded-looking.” Goth culture, he decides, is a romanticism whose romantic visions happen to be apocalyptic.

Another highlight is “We’re Not All Some Cindy!” in which Ames takes a class on how to pleasure a woman, with balloons for breasts and a peach for the vagina as classroom tools. In Journalism’s other pieces, Ames interviews Marilyn Manson and attends the U.S. Open, where he’s drawn to Maria Sharapova’s sexy armpits. He spends a few days in New York’s meatpacking district and comes away calling it “The Church of Surface,” a manufactured theme park for those amidst Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage of being. He keynotes the Corduroy Appreciation Club.

The problem is, unlike the NY Press columns in Ames’ previous collections, these stories are contrived situations, prescribed by magazines and not wanderlust. They aren’t raw slices of Ames’ life and lack the vigor of his earlier writing. Where’s the Ames who showed up to an orgy with his friend Mangina? The Ames who shit his pants in the south of France? The Ames who smoked crack with a transsexual prostitute? He seems softened. The wit is less savage. The reading is pleasant but nothing demands rereading; nothing made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. Are the real adventures over? Can they only be referred to now? Reminisced on?

In the Marilyn Manson story, Ames snorts coke with Manson but neglects to mention how it went. Wha happa?

The rest of the book seems cobbled together, with excessive diary entries and personal journals. Much of “June 25, 1983–August 1, 1983,” a sample of Ames’ teenaged diaries as he traveled Europe while yearning for his girlfriend Marie, is moving. But reading “June” is like reading the Xanga or LiveJournal Ames might’ve kept if he’d matured in a later decade. Meanwhile, “The Herring Wonder,” a piece about Ames’ fight with The Fighter author Craig Davidson that should have been a classic, is oddly structured, so that the meat of the story—the fight itself—is relegated to a second epilogue. Thus, the boxing story seems a blog entry Ames later edited.

The writing here is not without merit, but it does not reach Ames’ previous standards. There are some excellent sex stories—one about a woman who vaginally ejaculates onto Ames’ face; another about him deflowering a college girl who leaves him covered with blood—but these are underdeveloped. Too short. As though Ames rushed to finish them.

The “Short Stories” section of the book is saved by two greats. “Old Man, Young Girl” has a gut-punch last line—Ames the boxer-writer again emerges, speaking of his inability to love—and “I Was In Flowers” is a story about Ames’ visit to a male prostitute. The latter is less about sex and more about how a cruel teacher ended the prostitute’s dreams of being a painter. “I have a feeling that he is dead,” the ever-compassionate Ames writes a few years post meeting. “Probably from drinking. But he was a nice guy. I wish that his teacher hadn’t crushed him.”

Having arrived at Double Life‘s end, we can answer the question its black-and-white photograph book cover poses. Which Ames delivers the KO? The writer of fiction.

Written by patiomensch

July 25, 2009 at 12:10 am

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Summer Canoeing

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Written by patiomensch

July 25, 2009 at 12:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

David Foster Wallace Remembrance

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I wrote this for Filthy Habits in September 2008, the month David Foster Wallace committed suicide.

When I learned DFW had died—had, worst of all, committed suicide—I was sitting on the outskirts of a large family dinner. We’d just finished eating and I’d left the table to check my e-mail and Twitter on my laptop. “David Foster Wallace dead,” I read, via Maud Newton, via Ed Champion. “Oh my god,” I said. “Oh my god.” And I began, nearly immediately, to cry. All of my family—still seated around said dinner table & in the midst of a very loud, heated argument about politics (Palin)—turned toward me. I kept on crying.

“That is just fucking awful,” I Twittered. “God dammit.”

David Foster Wallace was a genius, in the true, uncorrupted-by-Apple sense of that word, a brilliant writer with an awesomely awesome brain, but his fiction wasn’t detached or inhumane. He loved language, all kinds of language. Language that’s traditionally beautiful, and language that’s beautiful because of what it hides. The vernaculars of advertising, corporations, psychiatrists. He had mastered or could master it all. He was experimental, but not at the expense of his fiction’s humanity. And beneath his pyrotechnics, you sensed a deep and profound empathy for everyone, despite the evils we do.

(And also also, he was hilarious. I’ll be rereading the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again till I die.)

DFW inspired me as a writer, and he inspired me as a human being. I can’t make that miserable, post-workday trip to the supermarket anymore without thinking of DFW’s commencement speech at Kenyon. I think of what he called our default setting: A self-centeredness that makes us unfairly and ignorantly despise anyone who gets in our way. Per David Foster Wallace, being truly humane ”involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

I left adolescence and grew into my mid-20s with David Foster Wallace, or rather, his words, at my side. I couldn’t have had a better guide, and discovered so much about the world through his writing. I learned about other writers, other artists—David Lynch, John Updike, Don DeLillo. I learned about the universality of the various pains and anxieties I’ve experienced. And I learned about compassion. David Foster Wallace succeeded at what Mr. Rogers (that Mr. Rogers, the PBS Mr. Rogers) said should be our mission as people: To remind others that they are not alone.

I hoped DFW would be at my side as I got older. More essays, more novels, more everything. I wanted it all from him. He was one of the few writers I regularly Googled, searching for new morsels. Anything he wrote, I would read. (Even if it was about Roger Federer.) No more. We’ve lost him.

If only DFW had heard and understood his own words to the suicidal protagonist of “Good Old Neon”: “It wouldn’t have made you a fraud to change your mind. It would be sad to do it because you think you somehow have to.” Suicide sucks, dude.

Written by patiomensch

July 25, 2009 at 12:07 am

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April 13, 2009

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On Saturday, Apryl, Gina and I walked Summit to the Mississippi and spent an hour at The Cliff (Photo by Gina Jeans)

 

Today’s going well—despite last week’s typo dust-up—and I’m hoping to see Andrew’s friend perform open-mic comedy at Acme tonight. Lunch-wise,  Marcus and I ate at Zen Box, my favorite skyway eatery ([heart] chicken kara-age) and talked about, (1) my new Smiley Face Killers obsession, (2) Amazon Fail, (3) the halting, disappointing progress of Marcus’ search for a publisher for Razor Kid, the comic book he created. Post-lunch, we spent 20 minutes strollin’ downtown, dodging sidewalk potholes and circumwalking all the construction that’s popped up in the last few weeks. The weather warms up and the fluorescent-vested guys descend! No matter what, I’ll get some biking time in tonight. Biking last night—with Bloc Party’s “Kreuzberg” on repeat—was beautiful.

Written by patiomensch

April 13, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Leave me alone, wrestler fetishists!

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ugh

Written by patiomensch

April 11, 2009 at 2:59 pm

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Being Hypnotized by Susan Just

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Last summer, I underwent hypnosis. I expelled some anxiety and got the traumas of my past expunged.

My hypnotherapist was the Twin Cities’ Susan Just, CH & CPHI, a success coach, certified hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy trainer. Previously, I’d thought hypnotism fraudulent, snake oil to con cash from the in-pain gullible, who’d do anything to feel better. Give me a salve. Swing a watch before my eyes and make me walk like a chicken and imitate Elvis. “You are getting very sleepy.” It seemed the realm of mustachioed, silent-movie villains, Ouija boards and Miss Cleo (ne Youree Dell Harris).

Nevertheless—to experiment—I chose hypnotherapy. It was new, and interesting, and unique. Have you been hypnotized? No, you haven’t (unless you have), and I wanted that prize. That desire led me to Susan,  who’s conducted over 2,200 sessions in the last three years. She has a private hypnotherapy school licensed by the State of Minnesota and has trained over 48 people to be certified hypnotherapists. I’m glad I found her, because hypnotherapy was a profound, cathartic and life-changing experience.

During my five sessions with Susan, I conked out in her hypnosis chair as she led me through childhood experiences that were the root of my present-day anxieties. I remembered getting lost at Disneyworld when I was eight. I remembered a Kindergarten girl glaring at me when, at six-years-old, I spilled Hawaiian Punch on my faux-Chuck Taylors. With Susan’s guidance, I remembered the womb, feeling imprisoned in innards. I forgave grade-school bullies. I forgave ex-girlfriends and ex-friends. I forgave my parents (for not buying me a Big Wheel for Christmas) and my sister (for being slobby). Anyone who’d done me wrong got a clean slate. I got a clean slate.

This spring, I decided I’d talk to Susan again. I wanted to know why and how she became a hypnotherapist and for what reasons others have sought her help, whether they’d been changed, too. This is a long interview.

— Patrick Stephenson

Photography by Andrew Ranallo

What first drew you to hypnotherapy?

I first was drawn to hypnotherapy because I was interested in past lives. I was curious about spirituality and the metaphysical world, like energy healing and intuitive skills. I used to do a lot of astrology, but I kept that behind closed doors because I was in, you know, corporate America. But I decided I needed that exposure. I had a couple of past lives done and realized I wanted to help people experience their past lives. Even though past lives can be the “sexy” topic, and I’m an expert at it, I have a strong appreciation for this life. I like helping every individual on their life path, whether they are agnostic or atheist, religious or spiritual. I help people stop smoking, lose weight, achieve more intimacy, release their fears, feal more confident, and adjust their relationship with themselves and the world. To me, that’s rewarding.

What was it like the first time you went under? The first time you were hypnotized yourself?

The first time, like for everyone else, I was nervous, wondering what to expect, but I’ve learned we go into hypnosis several times a day—when you’re on the computer, when you’re on the phone, when you’ve missed your exit when you’re driving. All those are times when we’re actually in self-induced hypnosis. When you’re focused on a charming, mesmerizing speaker on stage, you’re actually in a state of hypnosis. The cool thing is, hypnosis is simply a focused state of attention. I help people get away from that focused attention on their weight, on smoking or drinking, on the things they don’t like about themselves or about the world—I de-hypnotize people!

What is your mission as a hypnotherapist? You said you’re an “engineer of the mind”?

I’m a mind mechanic! [laughs] Or a mind masseuse. It depends on what I’m feeling that particular day. My goal is to help people be who they really are. And to make their process easier. Because everyone is wonderful. Everyone is beautiful. But we have these self-sabotages in our subconscious, and by using this simple technique, I help people drop a whole load of burdens. Not by shoving them down or ignoring them, but by really engaging in the process of living life. I help people live their lives more fully.

How would you define living fully?

I teach people to use their emotions as a language. We have our emotional body, our physical body, our intellectual body. A lot of times, our physical body and our intellectual body are at whatever age we’re at, but they tend to be the big bullies on the street, because our society is afraid of emotion. We’re so used to people wallowing in their emotions or stuffing them down, and not necessarily doing anything about them. I help people actively engage with their emotions and learn what their emotional body is trying to communicate. When you’re sad, you’ve lost something; when you’re angry, you’re actually afraid of something. In fact, at the root of all our emotions is fear. We’re actually afraid of saying that we’re afraid! I help people dial that fear back, identify what’s causing it, and choose a satisfying response. So you gain more responsibility for your life. You gain more opportunity. That’s the cognitive stuff. The subconscious unconscious work that I do, that’s what allows people to be their most effective.

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Written by patiomensch

April 10, 2009 at 3:31 pm

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