Lonely Men, Lonely Women


There are more people on Earth than ever before, so it’s natural that there are more lonely people on Earth than ever before.

It’s really an impossible statement to make, whether people are more or less lonely than in the past. Still, there’s a lot of talk about it because people like impossible statements. The world will end in 2012. I am the second coming of Christ. I am the Messiah. I’m just gonna have a few chips and then I’m gonna put the bag back in the pantry. Impossible statements like these are fun to make, and really give life a shake.

I’d like to give life a shake and make a few impossible statements about loneliness and gender. Cutting to the core, I’m going to tell you gendered behavior makes it so men have more of one type of friend and one type of loneliness and women have more of the other. I’m going to make an earnest request that all people should have both types of friends and minimize both types of loneliness.

Before all that, I’ve picked some cherries for you that demonstrate that there’s a narrative about loneliness that I’m building off of. Over nine million British adults are always or often lonely. 35 percent of (presumably British) men feel lonely at least once a week. The British have appointed a minister for loneliness to square the whole thing out, which seems terribly British of them.

Cigna, one of the feared giants of the American health insurance landscape, tell us Americans can also feel lonely. Nearly 50 percent of the Americans they surveyed sometimes or always feel lonely. We Americans are lonely too, but we aren’t going to appoint a minister to deal with it. We’re going to settle it like individuals and sabotage one another until we have to respond to each other with one to several thousand radical acts of violence.

There are, if you are one of those odd people that comprehends faces better than numbers, plenty of articles that take snapshots of the lonely person, giving them the voyeuristic respect adults give zoo animals. The focus of these articles often turn to friends, in particular, the adult male friendship. Many adult men struggle to find real, deep, meaningful friendships that will last a long time or can be picked up after long droughts.

This is a surprise to me because this is a problem I don’t have.

It may seem like I’m bragging – that’s because I am. I understand bragging isn’t a pretty thing to do, but I’ll celebrate my victories so life doesn’t feel like it’s all defeats. Plus, I’m not bragging just to brag, I’m bragging to talk about how important deep friendships are and how we build them.

In fact, last week I was sustained by deep friendships. Creatively, I was stymied all week. I spent the week fearing writing much more than actually writing. When you’re working part-time and taking on less money with the deliberate goal to write, this feels like a solid failure – because it is a solid failure. During the week, three different long-lasting friendships from different points of life pushed me out of feeling like a waste of space.

A college friend got me working on a podcast, and editing it actively gave me a creative, productive break from main projects. A childhood friend and I shared jokes and exchanged music and art we found. I got a keyboard to monkey around on and he gave me helpful advice on how to get started with a new instrument. I got the basis for this whole damn article by spending five hours talking with a friend I’ve had since ninth grade.

Without friends, I don’t know if I would’ve done a damn thing with the week and I can’t imagine the emotional lows I would’ve reached. It wasn’t like this week was an outlier or exception, either. I’ve had depressive episodes. I came into the stressful world of bisexuality rough and rollicked. I tumbled through queerness while working emotionally draining jobs and living off of small paychecks. I’ve gotten the shit beat out of me by adulthood. Plenty of people can live through this, but if I didn’t have a cast of close friends, I don’t think I would’ve.

So, celebrating the success that’s kept me kicking, I’ve been digging into this “friendship” business. To truly dig at the ideas, you’ve gotta start with the words.

What is lonely? What is friend?

 

Lonely is a lot of things to a lot of people, but it isn’t being alone. Being alone could even be “alone time,” which is a good thing in this culture where the word “introvert” is used as a cudgel to beat things to death.

Merriam-webster calls loneliness, “being without company” or “cut off from others.” That is generally accurate but not deeply accurate.

Lonely is, deeply speaking, feeling a want for call-and-response but feeling the call part won’t work. Maybe the call will echo into a void and disappear. Maybe there isn’t enough mental strength to make a call in the first place. Maybe there is so much mental movement that any call made would feel strange, desperate, totally alien to the flesh-things that cohabitate your space and all responses would be negative. Lonely is reaching out and not touching anything. It’s fucking terrifying. It’s a thing you can feel lightly or heavily, with a part of yourself or with your whole self.

Friend is a general thing. For most people, it is a wide, messy word that hides an even wider, messier spectrum. There are many different kinds of friends and there’s been a lot of ink spilled on defining the kinds and labeling the parts that put them at their point on the friend spectrum. Even the ends of the friend spectrum vary. For some, one end is “close” and the other is “distant.” For others, the ends are “deep” and “shallow” or “everyday” and “infrequent” or “supportive” and “challenging.”

Friend is so deep a thing that you can drown in it. So, here is what’s at the surface of it for me:

Inside the immense pool of friend, I see two clear distinctions in buds and besties. You may have fished more distinctions out of the pool of friend – I have too. I don’t doubt they’re there and as real as the ones I’ve found. Right now, it’s best to keep things honed to a binary, since we Americans have great trouble thinking outside of one.

Anyways, buds are people I meet for activities, clubs, careers, and interests. Buds are bound together through actions of some sort – games, sports, faith, yelling. Like with friends, buds can be good or best or close or whatever else. Buds can be run into or invited in. Buds can light up your room and your night and can mean a lot. Buds can become besties or stay buds, as besties can become buds or stay besties. A friend could be both at once. All things in life are fluid until proven otherwise.

Besties, on the other hand, come together over feelings. Besties bond over talks that stir up from wells of emotion. Besties hash out things like identity, sexuality, romance, politics, religion, and much more. Besties can have boundaries and don’t need to rip their souls out and share them at every interaction, but what’s important is that they can usually do this with each other on the drop of a dime. If one bestie is really struggling, they can expect to call out to another and get a response – maybe not immediately, but somewhat soon.

Now we’ve circled back to lonely. See, buds are great but they won’t stop lonely. Buds can’t be guaranteed to respond to a call because the call is an action and they might not feel like playing a game, or going running, or hopping in bed with you (there are fuck buddies, but a fuck bestie is just a significant other). Besties can respond to that call. Friends that you might not have talked to in months could still qualify as besties, and friends you see every week could be buds. I have both.

There are besties I have brought deep shit to after months, maybe even a year of silence, and they take it in stride. There have been other times I’ve done that and not gotten a response, letting me know that person may not be a bestie anymore. That’s not a bad thing, and not even on them as much as it could be on me, it just is what it is. There are buds I’ve bonded past action with and become besties with, too.

“But bro,” a loud, perpetually flexing voice in my head says, “why’d you have to use a girly mouth sound like bestie? Why not a strong, masculine term like Punch Brethren?” Because everything is gendered, including loneliness.

Men have buds. Women have besties.

 

I was raised by a wild pack of women, and also my dad. I learned a lot from both parties.

In education and development, there’s a simple idea called modeling. Your actions set a model for children, which the child then builds a version of for themselves. I model how to say a word, the child builds the word along that model. My sisters model how to build a friendship, I build a friendship along that model.

I grew up with both the masculine and feminine models – the bud and bestie – put right in front of me. Without thinking, I’ve modeled both and it’s been why my social life has stayed solid. Growing up, I felt no shame calling up a bestie or getting called by one just to talk. This idea of talking just to talk gets coded feminine for whatever reason. It ‘s an idea at the core of being a bestie because, through course of long conversation, deep feelings will be broached.

In my house, I regularly saw these kinds of long conversations. My sisters had them over the phone with friends and in-person with each other, and my mom had them with her own friends and coworkers. I am lucky that I consider all of my sisters besties. I’m both lucky and unlucky that they weren’t the type to let me disengage totally from the feminine as a young boy would like to. I was unlucky in that they did terrible things to my hair. I was lucky in that I learned valuable lessons about friendship. The end result was that I came away not feeling so uncomfortable with feelings that I couldn’t express them to friends and get those besties.

Here is where I don’t undersell my dad and masculinity. There is toxicity to masculinity, but one thing it gets right is community through hobby. I saw my dad move through several communities centered around sports, religion, yelling, and more. This was hugely important to me. I have valued memories of watching the Pacers and of chanting at the Gohonzon in a community center full of old Japanese people. Both of these things carried into my adult life and formed up parts of my identity. I’m not a Buddhist, but it’s still the basis of a lot of my morality; I’m still a Pacers fan, and it’s also the basis of a lot of my morality. My dad had a lot of buds, which helped me learn how to make them myself and find new corners of the world to squirrel into.

Let me try and dodge some hot water here and say that these gendered dynamics aren’t set in stone. They can reverse and change, and they do. They also do not mean that men couldn’t do something emotionally available like social work and women couldn’t do something like lead communities. Men and women do both things, yet, search your culture and ask yourself, which gender gets stereotyped as community leaders and which gender gets stereotyped as community supporters?

The gentleman lonely and the lady lonely

 

The fact that men and women have these gendered differences in how friendships form also means that they have differences in how they feel lonely. Men tend to have more buds and women tend to have more besties. The terrible truth is, you need both. It takes a village to raise an adult… or something like that.

I’ve given besties a lot of props, so now I have to tear them down. Besties are great, and while I do think they’re better for deep loneliness than buds, they aren’t always what a person needs. There will be times where you might not realize you’re lonely, or where a bestie can’t be called on, or where a distracting, fun activity is better for loneliness than a deep talk. This is where buds come in.

That board game night, that video game session, that dungeons and dragons group are all things where socialization happens but, pleasantly, it isn’t about anybody. It’s about the activity and so it’s about everybody. This can be super socially cohesive. Anthropologists study games at length and discuss them plenty because of that social weight they carry. Think about every human you know. Getting even five of those fuckers to come into a room and not think primarily about themselves for hours at a time is an actual accomplishment. Actions and activities do that. Buds do that.

There is so much more to be said for buds beyond that. Buds surprise you, showing sudden depth or skill or virtue through a game or activity. Buds don’t need you to be emotionally available like besties. Buds let you express things totally unattached to emotions, feelings, and maybe even the core of yourself, letting you blossom into all sorts of wild nonsense. These kinds of circles can, despite often being deliberately less deep, be fertile ground for growing an entirely new part of an identity.

So, the lady lonely often comes from lacking this. I’ve known it to happen to friends and family and I’ve seen it in discourse. If you’ve been on Tumblr, there are a lot of posts defending what are essentially bud building zones for women. Posts step up to defend fandoms, fanart, K pop, Harry Potter, and traditionally feminine things like makeup or biddy-hoards at bars (yes, I know bro-hoards exist and are just as obnoxious). This is women pushing for spaces where they can have buds, and that’s important because a lot of traditional bud-zones are masculine. Sports, comics, video games, and so on are all coded masculine and women have written at length about their troubles earning respect in these spaces.

It’s really gonna put a damper on your quest for a bud if you’re constantly fighting for equality and respect while inside the bud-zone. Your buds might involuntarily become besties through that because difficult conversations are forced, and you’re actually a little bit disappointed because a bud would’ve been nice. Being bisexual, I partially understand the feeling.

Women often have those important besties that keep them afloat but they don’t as often have simple communities to access where they can get some hassle-free buds. Studies won’t indicate women as lonely as often as they will men, but I do think a lady lonely exists. I’ve seen women in my life have to look and work harder for hobbies and to get buds. My sisters would often wonder why sometimes my friends and I could just sit and play the same or different video games near each other, rarely talking, not having been taught the bud dynamic.

I’ve also seen women I know lose friends more quickly because the bestie dynamic can be more fragile and prone to explosion than the bud dynamic. If someone stops coming to trivia, you may miss them but you probably won’t blow up on them. If someone violates your trust by revealing a deep thing you told them, or by taking that deep anxiety you revealed and crapping all over it, or by putting too much emotional stress on you, then there may be an explosion.

There are so many jokes of two women being furious at each other and petty for years and two men reconciling immediately. In my eyes, some of this comes from that dynamic where women are raised expecting besties and men are raised expecting buds. It’s not that big a deal if a bud is frustrating, but it can be a really big deal if a bestie is. I think there’s an expectation for women to be vulnerable and emotionally available all the time, and that’s bad for breeding buds, and out and out bad in general.

Men have the exact reverse expectation, expected to be invulnerable and emotionally controlled most of the time – bad for breeding besties and out and out bad in general.

The gentleman lonely may be less wide, but it is deeper. I don’t think men are as fenced in by their loneliness, being able to reach out and to find social clubs and communities and not worrying much about drama or problems in them. Yet, the problem for a lot of men is this is a shallow pool. How would your pool partner, your dungeon master, or your basketball buddies feel at you opening up about money problems? Or about depression? Or about how so many dreams feature the same the gnarled, bone-white figure approaching you and how each dream, it gets closer and closer, and how you are at once so afraid and so excited for it to reach you; for it to undo what it has come to undo and leave you in peace; for even if it undoes you by your every fiber, there must be peace in the undoing; there must be a peace that you don’t have now and will never have while you wait for it to reach you.

The deeper stuff might be off-limits, or it might not be, but it’s not comfortable enough to everyone involved to feel worth expressing. It’s more fun to just drink and play pool. Growing up, I was taught that emotions, anxieties, and the Pale Walker Named Dread were all things you talked about. A lot of men don’t have that same experience and can have trouble creating relationships that go to that deeper level.

We talk about the gentleman lonely more because we see it as more dangerous. To lay out as flat as possible, the lonely, nervous man is the potential shooter – in America, anyways. The world over, they’re still potential perpetrators of other crimes or violence. I don’t think people view the lonely woman in the same light. Instead, people see her as a potential victim, probably of the potential crime the lonely man would do. They also might see her as undesirable, or in some way deficient.

A lot of this, on either side, isn’t real. Lonely people are much more depressed and self-destructive than dangerous or undeserving. It’s all too easy to write off lonely people as deserving of it and unfit to socialize. Men feel this pressure intensely since they’re identified as dangers, not in danger. The gentleman lonely can dig at the roots of the self, tearing at identity and confidence, putting lonely men in a downward spiral where anxiety ramps up, confidence collapses, and socializing becomes harder.

I’ve fallen into this spiral before. Whenever I socialized I felt like shit, like I wasn’t totally me, and like it was a wonder why anyone hung out with me at all. I could openly tell friends about this struggle, and hearing that they had my back, that I was still who I thought I was, helped me pull out of the spiral. It’s not so hard to confide in a bestie, but it is tough to walk up to a bud and say, “I had the dream again. This time the Pale Walker Named Dread was so close that I could see the lines tracing its face like rivers cutting gorges into valleys.” My buds can draw me away from these thoughts for a bit, or remind me of my social value, but only my besties really bring me out of them.

A lot of men need a significant other to be the bestie, which is part of why men freak out so damn much about the idea of not having one. It’s part of why incels exist. When someone says and does things as embarrassing as incels do, it’s out of no small desperation and a pretty small sense of self. I’d put money down on the fact that plenty of incels have a few buddies, but besties are rarer. The language, the training, the modeling, all of it isn’t there for plenty of men and so the deeper things remain hidden. The gentleman lonely can be a steady force saddled right on the shoulders wearing downward, pushing and pushing towards the dirt. For men, loneliness is a deep well that they can fall into. They can pull themselves out with distractions but they could fall back into the well the very next day.

Non-binary finale

 

We’ve looked at lady lonely, looked at gentleman lonely, so what about non-binary lonely? I’m fairly genderqueer. I’ve been diagnosed by a licensed psychiatrist with gender dysphoria. I’ve known and spoken with plenty of transgender and genderqueer people. I’ve messed with my pronouns in the right environments. I rarely talk about this because I’m a teacher and I want to appear as an upstanding young man, and because I feel reluctant to claim a lot of identities when it seems like no one is having any fun with any of them. Gender is not the cross I’ll die on, if I can help it, but I’d be remiss not to hit on the non-binary element when it’s important.

I don’t think the uterus or balls push someone as hard in the direction of bud or bestie as upbringing, societal expectations, and pure personality do. If you’re a fanatic for wider communities and for hobbies and doing things in groups, then I bet you’ll get a lot of buds. If you’re all about long, deep conversations for the sake of it, then likely you’ll get besties. In my experience of the non-binary world, it varies based on personality first, gender identity second.

Gay or lesbian people will have more buds or besties based on preference too. I think being LGBT+ pushes a person towards besties since besties better help you survive against the heavy emotional damage that can come from queerness. That said, in adulthood, there is so much community in the LGBT+ world that a person can reorient towards buds.

I favor the middle, walking the surprisingly large line of androgyny in between, and lean lightly towards getting besties. Given the weird, often depressing interplay between creativity and queerness, I need besties more. If I didn’t have so much to hash out, I think I’d be much closer to the middle because they scratch different itches.

When you get a bunch of comfortable buds around, beautifully absurd things happen. Grown folk pretend to be dwarves, elves, gnomes, and orcs. People scream so loud for the tall man to dunk the dark orange ball through the bright orange rim. Friends get hot around the ears over plastic pieces on wooden boards, betraying and allying with one another. The world is at its weirdest and most mystifying when you’ve got a bunch of upright, linguistic simians in a room spitting threats and alliances at each other over a set of dice or a bowl of chips.

Yet, once the dust settles around an event, it’s lost to me. The conversations about life with my best friends stay with me for weeks or me, pulling me up as dark thoughts drag me down. To me, it becomes a balance. I need both for different things and if I were allowed to, I’d seek a complete equilibrium. I think most people, given the tools, stripped away of the coding, stripped away of the shame, would seek something close to an equilibrium.

Yes, there are some people who naturally make buds, not besties, and vice-versa. I’ve met both types. Still, there are more I’ve met that are much closer to the middle, wanting to have both much more than they show.

Right now, we’re hashing out the toxicity inside gender identities that have rapidly become too absurd to ignore. Gendered behaviors are at once so far removed from the environments that (maybe) provoked them and so intensely reinforced by marketing messages wanting to sell shades that are pinker than pink and bluer than blue, that they’re past the boiling point and mostly steam by now. Because of that, I see a lot more tendencies to tear down than to celebrate – as much in myself as in others. It can be healthy to tear down, but if you’re not careful, you lose some things you may need later.

If there’s something I’d celebrate from my masculinity, it’s bringing people together to do something with the day. Fuck it, let’s let Monday’s problems sit inside Monday and let’s spend Sunday screaming at people we don’t know, who also can’t hear us. Let’s bond, let’s surprise each other, let’s build on each other.

If there’s something I’d celebrate from my femininity, it’s being there for someone on their worst day, talking over the hardest parts of the world with them. Hell yeah, let’s talk about how wild a ride life is and maybe cry a bit while we’re at it. Let’s see what feelings look like on the faces of other people, let’s feel what they do to our own faces, let’s build each other up.

If there’s something I’d argue, it’s that these don’t need to be separated. You don’t have to pick one and you never had to. In fact, it’s probably better you didn’t. Redefining gender shouldn’t be loss alone, it should also be gain. Men aren’t from Mars, women aren’t from Venus, we’re all earthlings similarly awful at cohabitation. We might as well start learning from each other and, who knows? Maybe we’ll get better at living with each other too.

~Austin R Ryan

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Why Smash Mouth?


“Some…” You already know what is about to happen. Subconsciously, your brain can feel beautiful disaster rolling all over it already – though your conscious brain might not be onto it yet. In the next half second your whole self will understand what’s happening. “BODY!” That word punches out from a distant radio mouth and now the bass and guitar are chiming in with super simple, bobbing rhythms. “Once told me the world’s gonna roll me…” The bass sounds like a sweet simpleton and the guitar seems like this small muppet creature that meeps out high pitched orders from on top of the simpleton bass’s arched back. Sweet God yes and oh hell no, it is Smash Mouth again. It is fucking Smash Mouth again.

Smash Mouth is pervasive in a way a lot of bands like it aren’t and surprising in the way that they complete an aesthetic of West Coast surfer buttrock that is at its core surprising for being not at all glorious and actually pretty sincere. Hearing “All Star” come on the radio, you may lump it in with something like Three Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” or even a random one-hit wonder but Smash Mouth has at least a little bit more commercial power than that. Smash Mouth fit for a long time into a niche of movie music that made numerous songs of theirs into odd Hollywood hits. “All Star” was once such a go-to hype up track that I earnestly believe some screenplays were chosen by studios based on how good a vessel they were for the great and terrible dark lord of the late 90’s and early 00’s that we call “All Star.” Smash Mouth is the lord of cinema for the childhoods of many people blooming into adulthood right now.

Like a lot of pop products that you are mandated to absorb into your sinful body, this is one that people either reject or accept on a kneejerk. Every time I interact with Smash Mouth my knees jerk in different reactions. ‘Mixed feelings’ doesn’t quite cover it. God I love Smash Mouth. Oh boy I want to destroy them. Smash Mouth makes me feel like I am either in a sweet nightmare or an ugly dream. In this way, Smash Mouth is like one of these God awful memes that keep happening around me. The meme is my brother and I am happy for it, but the more I stare at it the more it frustrates me. I laugh and I clap but my insides are roiling and my mind is screaming furiously that I am disgusting; every inch of my pleasure is disgusting. Smash Mouth feels like that – like a meme or a b-movie, but an actual, real band with actual, real people. I am not original in this reaction to Smash Mouth. Tremendous meme-god and general humorist Neil Cicierega (also known as Lemon Demon, creator of BrodyquestUltimate Showdown, or some other meme that you decadently love) devoted a good chunk of a remix album to them. John Hendren, an internet funny man from the terrible meme-hive called SomethingAwful.com, started a large internet crusade to get the lead singer of Smash Mouth to eat 24 eggs. “All Star” is also fodder for Tumblr photo caption memes and endless humorous remixes.

Who is Smash Mouth? You didn’t ask that question because you are pretty sure the answer is unimportant, but the answer matters because it is more sincere than you might think. You hopefully still hold the beautiful idea that Smash Mouth is a giant gaping maw that is always screaming. You may even believe that Smash Mouth is actually just one man-thing that breaths sweet ska-pop-rock out of very large pores. Smash Mouth at its core was actually four whole people that all have a seemingly normal amount of flesh with average sized pores: lead singer Steve Harwell, Kevin Coleman on drums, Greg Camp on the mondo surf guitar, and Paul De Lisle on the sweet simpleton bass. This is the lineup that produced the spirit of Smash Mouth – their first two albums, loaded with hits like “Walkin On The Sun,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” and of course, “All Star.” The lineup starts to shift and stir some as Smash Mouth advances forward – seemingly perpetually – as guitarist Greg Camp moves on to some other projects while occasionally making returns to Smash Mouth. If there is a quiet genius to this band, it is Greg Camp. His tenure outside of Smash Mouth is not groundbreaking, but it shows where the band gets its cinematic magic from as Greg Camp has done a lot of solid soundtrack work and wrote most of the band’s bigger hits. Some readers are already sneering because Greg Camp is neither Radiohead nor FKA Twigs, so he’s hardly even a real musician but Greg has most likely wrenched an emotional reaction out of you at least once while you were off guard, watching some movie. Greg has at least once ripped you from your media ivory tower and thrown you down to squirm in the cultural dirt of the layman. Give Greg that credit.

Outside of Greg, the most rotating band member is the drummer. If your dream is to be in Smash Mouth, just pick up those sticks and lay down some crunchy West Coast surfer bro rhythms and bucko you might just make it. The two consistent factors are the bassist Paul and singer Steve, who have been with Smash Mouth for the vast majority of its life. Steve is the man many call Smash Mouth and as much as he is the face of the band, so the band is the face of him. Steve is the man you expect him to be to a terrifying degree. He is a middle aged man who still just really seems to like to play his pretty alright music and lives endlessly in a pocket of 90’s fashion – from clothes to music. This is part of what makes Smash Mouth such a strange and sublime force: Smash Mouth is sincere.

(“Home” off of Smash Mouth’s Astro Lounge album, is an example of a deep track that’s surprising both for not sounding like “All Star” or “Walkin’ The Sun” while also tackling the band’s growing fame in a very sincere way.)

This is a crucial point. Unlike a one-hit wonder or a cash-in band built to ride a wave that crashes into money, Smash Mouth is a project that its band members love enough to actually become. Like how At The Drive In and The Mars Volta absolutely breath through Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s experiences with heroin and Ouija boards, Smash Mouth exists on Steve and Paul and Greg’s San Diego stoner musician lifestyle and their desire to get laid and play music. Where that sincerity makes The Mars Volta and At The Drive In forceful and wildly creative standouts in their genre it also allows Smash Mouth to become great even just through thoroughly alright surfer rock. This sincerity is what makes Smash Mouth enticing, and at times even a genuinely good band. It is what gives the band a sound at once distinct and recognizable enough to become at least big enough to be fodder for endless internet comedians and Hollywood execs.

From the get go, it is hard to take Smash Mouth as a sincere product. This is the band whose half-baked stoner thought lyrics have been burned into the grey of everyone’s brain matter by movies; this is the band whose “Lowrider” inspired beats have been made more memorable to you than your significant other’s first name by radio. There are few other bands in the world as associated to products as Smash Mouth, but if you really listen to their albums – especially the early ones – you can hear how it all came from some San Diego stoners who had stumbled into a perfect poppy distillation of several odd West Coast influences. I all came from an actual band. Even their first album’s name Fush Yu Mang, is just a sincere, personal affect – an inside joke between band mates who loved watching Scarface – and a silly way to say, “Fuck you, man.” The songs within are varied and loaded with both the explosive goofiness of youth on tracks like “Let’s Rock” and the shallowness of it too in “Beer Goggles” (predictably about screwing while drunk). Their other deep tracks surprise by experimenting and incorporating genre and style tweaks – little signs of genuinely curious musicians figuring out which way to grow. “Fallen Horses” uses much smoother and softer guitar more fitting a lounge sound that centers around questioning death. Listening to it, genuine surprise ran through my awful, cynical head when Steve Harwell sang, “would you help me / if I wanted to die.” I was similarly surprised to find they released a song this year – “Love Is A Soldier” – that is a pretty clubby EDM song. Whether what they are deriving is derivative will always be subjective, but listen to even their first two albums and it will be clear that if they are derivative, they are sincerely derivative.

“Walkin’ On The Sun.” is Smash Mouth’s quintessence and their first big hit. It is fit for radio and is an honestly good pop song, but at the same time it is obviously a sincere result born from Smash Mouth’s funky surf influences and experimentation. It sounds like War making a poppy rock jingle and it makes my mouth froth up with rabid rage, but it is also so bouncy and easy to listen to and genuinely very well put together that I cannot stop myself from loving it. Their lead singer always sings in a way that is punchy and overly aggressive such that he is impossible to ignore, yet he is simultaneously fluid and smooth. The lyrics are half-formed statements about drug culture that’s hard to parse but in such a catchy way that they can’t be anything but fake deep – this sets my synapses on fire and makes me so excited and so mad. Their songs are like fake rebellions set to Austin Powers soundtracks but they are so unabashedly that, that I respect them for it. They are like the Guy Fieri of bands but instead of fight that part of Smash Mouth their lead singer literally met and befriended Guy Fieri. They are the band that I absolutely want to see eat around 30 eggs because I love them and I hate them and I respect them. I need to see Steve Harwell’s soft, middle-aged, San Diego stoner body ingest so many eggs and much of the internet wordlessly understands why. I need to see him have a terrifyingly awkward, sexually charged interview afterward where a ropy man with sunglasses plays peanut gallery in the background literally the entire time and the camera man interrupts the interview to ask Steve Harwell if it is okay to zoom in on his mouth. God yes, Smash Mouth! God yes! I am already so on board and I haven’t even touched when Steve Harwell launch into a tirade of profanity at a bread throwing heckler while the intro chords to “All Star” plod away in the background, desperately pleading against the sky itself that this not be Smash Mouth’s cosmic destiny.

Smash Mouth fills my body with shimmering love and burning hate at the same time. On the one hand, “All Star” approaches me with violent staccato vocals that literally never settle down or get even slightly less punchy at any point in the song, but on the other hand, yes! I am an all-star! What’s more, when I really dig deep down into these masterful disaster artists, there are real gems, real kernels of solidly composed ska and funk and surf experimentation that beat the crap out of the cynical asshole in me who just wants to laugh at these kings of surf-buttrock when I am not even duke of Shit Mountain. The sweet and often varied rhythms of this strange surf-buttrock gurgling up endlessly from the vestiges of 1990’s San Diego bleeds a whole West Coast aesthetic that smells like, Shrek, my childhood and also a fire – and that’s great. Smash Mouth is dead. Long live Smash Mouth.

steve-and-guy

~Austin R Ryan

Malka


Malka is Hebrew for queen – some people know that. What most don’t know is that Malka is the best name for fat tabby cats. This is not just because most fat tabby cats look like they have fine black crowns on the top of their heads. In the mind of a fat tabby cat, she is and has always been a great grey queen with a domain of human subjects grateful to witness her royal mouse hunts; so that fat tabby cat is as much a queen as Elizabeth, Victoria, and Golda (Meir, of course).

This is the story of two fat tabby queens and the kitty kingdoms they had. Malka the first, Malka 1, just plain Malka did not accept many of the subjects that came and went through her country. The original empress, she ruled over a small domain – an apartment in Chicago not far from the lake – with just two old folks named Carol and Sheldon as true subjects. During many Hanukkahs and many Passovers all sorts of other big, furless cats would come and go but she did not know or trust them. They would get no dead mice and no affectionate purrs from her. Many of them truly did not deserve it; young and greedy, they grabbed at her with hungry palms that pulled and tugged; she – a proper Malka – deserved nothing less than the best and softest pets and she would come claim them at her own leisure!

Though Malka I was not always a kind queen, she sometimes showed a softer side. Yes, she scratched and she bit and all the vagabonds and trespassers knew to fear her claws; yes, she hissed and howled at clumsy but friendly hands too; but when a child cried on her couches and bedsides she would retract her razors and paw them condolences. Malka I was a strong and mean ruler but she was soft and kind especially to her closest subjects. When she went she was mourned deeply and she left her subjects with a fat tabby cat shaped hole in their hearts.

However a proper queen always has a lineage. Not so long later, another tabby cat – young and without a kingdom – was busy stepping across a dark road. Many other nights she had darted across street and field, deftly dodging coyotes and cars, hawks and Hondas, but this night was different. Small and agile, a natural hunter, she leaped and bounded across that dark road again, but got struck by a passing car and dropped one life of nine. Left along on the road she mewed and cried until some strange set of hands carried her off to a vet before the other eight could slip away. The vet labored on this tabby – hardly even a cat yet – until by the end of the night it was stitched up and saved. However, it was still homeless. The fine folk that saved her could not keep her and instead of a kingdom she found a cage.

Shaved and small, set in a kennel full of bigger cats, she was a queen with no kingdom, an empress in exile. Little did she know, Malka I had come as a spirit to find another tabby cat to grow fat and continue her line. Malka I found the little tabby and told her to keep her shaved side hidden against the kennel wall and mew sweetly for the next old lady that came in. Sure enough, the next visitor to her cage was an old woman named Carol, who had a fat tabby cat shaped hole in her heart.

When the handlers took the kitten to Carol, the kitten she was skeptical at first. Who was this human? Could she be trusted? She shied away but Carol, even seeing her shaved side with all its scars, knew another Malka when she saw one. Carol sat for a while and talked with the little tabby.

“You look so pretty!” She said to give the queen compliment.

“It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.” She said, and kept her distance to give the queen respect.

“We’ll feed you and you’ll have a great big place where you can chase birds and mice.” She said to give the queen a true kingdom.

This little tabby kitten decided to step over and let Carol carefully lift her up and cradle her in palanquin arms. At that moment they both knew she was not just a Malka, but Malka II, Malka the second, Malka two. Carol brought the cat back to Sheldon, who smiled and said,
“Gee well, couldn’t you have got a healthy one?”

All the same they came to love the new Malka. Her fur grew in again, just as lush and beautiful as before she was hurt and before long she was a cat with a kingdom of wetlands out in the country, complete with birdbaths to stalk and gardens to weave through. Malka II had surpassed her predecessor; she had more not just in land, but in kind subjects too. By now the once young subjects had grown and learned how to keep their fingers from tugging and their palms from pulling so Malka II was generous with her affection and let many who came into her kingdom pet her. Perhaps Malka II became kind through being grateful. Her fortunes had turned sharply as she went overnight from losing a life to gaining a kingdom. Whatever the cause was, Malka II became even more beloved and bequeathed than her namesake and in no time at all she had filled fat tabby cat shaped holes in hearts that didn’t even know they had one.

~Austin R Ryan

So Fashion!


Let me tell you I was gonna post up my usual kind of god damned high art imitation BS blog post about the black mold in my home and some of the hard times I’ve been having here in China but that’s not the piping hot helping I want in my bowl right now. No sir, I’ll tell you what I really wanna talk about is fashion! I don’t wanna talk about American fashion and you can run and tell that to every single young adult male wearing salmon tone boating shorts. When it comes to fashion, the cargo shorts, the slacks, even the best bought band shirts of the USA have nothing on the glee that Chinese style brings to me. To say that Chinese fashion is off the rails doesn’t even do it justice because there are no rails in Chinese fashion at all and everyone indulges recklessly in free-form fashion every day with not a single fashion task force out to get them.

For example, once I found a man wearing a baby blue sports coat over a baby blue plaid pattern shirt over baby blue khakis just sitting in a chair in the middle of the wide sidewalk outside of a large commercial center. It was like a color of the rainbow came down to Earth. Before I came to China, I didn’t know that I wanted to see men douse their bodies in clothes of one single primary color and now not only do I know that I want that but that I’ll probably get it. Sometimes I don’t even look and when I pull on my red jacket while I have my red slacks on I’ve found I’ve become the red guy. I am happy to be the red guy; I embrace this role; I embrace representing this primary color at the clothes congress. Where in America this man may receive verbal beating from abusive fashionistas, here he is safe to shine in beautiful baby blue glory.

American fashion is boring, cowed cowardice compared to Chinese fashion. In America a woman likely fears leaving the home looking like a witch. In China many women leave home looking like terrible witches with faces as pale as the moon and long, flowing coats and dusters as black as the awful magic they use to reap vengeance on those that dare jock their soup. It is a wonderful thing to me to see a young woman enter the KFC with a black massively brimmed hat that’s round and cutting as lumber mill buzz-saws over a long flowing black coat that flicks in the wind behind her. Her dark-as-night boots and pants round out a sci-fi FBI agent image she punches into the world like a typewriter punches ink onto a page. This woman has no fear of her look both because it is semi-regular (there are many witches here) and because few others have judgment of it.

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When I go to America no doubt hair dyes and beards and flannels and everything else will feel like a warm blanket of a much missed home. Yet if you asked me would I miss the witches, I would almost indignantly tell you that of course I would miss the witches; I would miss them maybe more than I would be happy to see face piercings again. If you asked me if I would like for everyone to be witches I would say – definitely indignantly – that no, I do not want that; that clearly goes too far. But 50% witches is agreeable to me, though I would say 30% is ideal as I have a healthy fear of the dark arts.

Furthermore, the witches are just one great and terrible dark cavern on the strange fantasy-scape that is Chinese fashion. The women just one accessory away from wearing an actual princess outfit must be admired too for all their frills. There is nothing ironic about literal frills in China. So many blouses have frills like you wouldn’t believe – flagrant frills layered on pinkest of pink patterns . I have a coworker who regularly comes in with what I speculate are literal Lisa Frank patterns printed (and often bedazzled) on giant pink and purple shirts that reach to her knees. I have seen her wear unicorns, I have seen her wear bedazzled pink sports jerseys, but I have never seen anyone bat an eye. If you think that sounds anything less than victorious than my friend you just have to shatter that American judgment calling you to plain protestant styles.

Besides, the plain and sleek styles have their representatives too. Most people go for subtle and regular patterns of button-up shirts and jeans (though khakis and slacks are much more common). Some people have simple dresses and once I even saw a woman in a pants suit come out of a Pizza Hut (this was a vividly joyous moment for me). Muted earth tones do exist here and people do wear them. However, many normal ensembles incorporate an item of clothing – shirts, jackets, the seat of the pants, the legs of the pants, the entire pants – that say something that is absolutely absurd English or just pure alphabet soup gibberish. My personal favorite is a jacket that says, “This ain’t no real bustard” on it. I have seen these “this ain’t no real bustard” jackets several times and I have so many questions. Did they mean to write bustard – which is a type of bird – at all? Were they going for bastard or for mustard? In either case why is the authenticity of the bastard/mustard on display? I am bad with multiple negatives, so I also NEED someone to tell me if this is or isn’t the real bustard. And is this is a meme? Is this what memes look like in China? Do people wear memes here? I don’t know about how all celestial forces feel, but I am 80% sure the Abrahamic God considers wearing memes a sin and will flood-genocide (drownicide) us again if we start to wear memes en masse, so I hope it’s not a meme.

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There are of course many other ridiculous things written on shirts but sometimes the message is not so much ridiculous as surprising. I have a bag – where I store my many soup cans – that says, “seven days away, I think I thought I heard you say.” The odd quote is indicative of an outright genre of clothes and accessories that say something correct but still kind of baffling. Clothing in the US tends to carry a pretty light message and words on clothes often just share some easy laugh factory material. Chinese t-shirts aren’t usually chuckle buckets, opting to spread weirdly serious messages instead. I once waited in line for soup behind a little boy in a jean jacket that read “ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE WHO ELSE BUT ME.” On the topic of children, every trend here applies to them because their parents dress them like tiny adults. This is as absolutely adorable, strange, and fantastic as you are imagining it to be.

Anyways, I have started to accumulate shirts with wonky words, but some are oddly expensive. I had my eye on a shirt that just said “sample text” but it cost over 100 RMB (15-ish USD), which can pay for 3-5 meals out and much soup. I have managed to find some cheap items such as a shirt with the beloved Nintendo character Yoshi over a plain red background with a word bubble that says “Happy!” underneath giant black letters that say “I love family,” a shirt with a picture of a hat just above a random paragraph attempting to describe the idea of fashion, and a hat that says “If.”

People here also borrow from other countries – particularly Korea. Many people wear Korean hats with a lot of extra space at the top where one could hide a trinket or a can of soup. It is not often but occasionally I see pretty boys wearing long jackets with weird words or patterns, some sweet ass kicks, a colorful hairdo that must have taken a lot of hair spray to maintain, and impossibly tight jeans that must take a lot of work to squeeze into.

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On pants, nothing makes me think quite as deeply as the difference between the pants of American and Chinese men. In China men rarely wear baggy or ill-fitting pants and on it easily looks much better than the frequent style young American men adopt, where the pants are wide enough around the legs to contain a terrible and endlessly discontent void. Yet, there is a drawback as many Chinese men must have a man bag to make these tight jeans work practically, or even to make well fitting pants look good. Tight pants effectively have no storage and well-fitting pants look as chunky as a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag when their pockets hold a wallet, a phone, spare change, an mp3 player, and a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag. Many man bags look pretty good but some don’t quite hit the mark, which makes man bag selection another clothing piece to pour soup worry into. Furthermore, I can’t help but think that in the US the assault on masculinity the murse can resemble might cause a frothy broth of rage to boil up in more traditional men and also men who believe your soup belongs in a sandwich bag in your pocket. Indeed, it took me a while to come to terms with the man bag and accept that, yes all men are still carrying soup even if I cannot see the vague shape of the sweet nutrient juice bulging against the edges of jean pockets.

With this topic I could go on endlessly, but ultimately what I love of Chinese fashion is simply the lack of concern it has for a single standard. With so much influx of global products and styles, fashion here is a saloon in the Wild West where there are no rules and you wear what you want so long as you can shoot from the hip and store a steaming can of chunky dinner-cereal emptied into a sandwich bag somewhere on your person. You can do literally anything and there are literally no rules about clothes in China! [Correction: After the time of publication I was informed by my editor that there are in fact “laws” about “clothes” and “public indecency” in China and I was apparently “lucky” not to be “arrested” when I went to the store in the buff.] Here in China even the word fashion is as free flowing and unrestrained as soup and often used as an adjective. “It’s so fashion,” is in my mind not so much Chinglish as it is a modification our language needs. When I leave China I’ll miss the bold and wild fashion it has; I will miss the colors; I will miss the witches; I will miss the serious and confusing gibberish; I will miss inhaling the rich stew of intermingling global trends.

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~Austin R Ryan