American Plain Views


I currently live and work in Minneapolis as an educator in an Americorps program and freelance writer. Sometimes it is peculiarly pretty here. It is pretty in a way that’s as much a sensation as a view. These little snippets will hopefully let you in on some of those American plain views.

View Heading Down Penn from Olson:

Olson Memorial Highway pushes out in both directions like big tar rivers and the grey-black backs of big straight serpents swimming into and out of center city. If the light allows, you can ford it all at once and if it doesn’t you are in an island in the middle watching the rust and the shine of cars sprint like metallic fish up and down stream. It is dirt, mud clot, and trash spotted right by Olson but further on past is the Harrison neighborhood where things get cleaner, greener, squarer and on with lawns and their houses. A little black girl cast in bronze statue welcomes you. Here the hills rise and sink slowly as the gentle undulation of a half-urban half-suburban dragon. The way the road stretches, the way there are no trees to block the skies or the hills as they rise, you can see right down Penn as it weaves up and down and up until it is too high to see past; just from seeing how the sky goes and goes and the earth goes and goes you’d guess there wasn’t any end to it. But then, eventually, you’d hit the highways and the interstates.

View From the Back of the 19:

Metro Transit buses have big windows to soothe you that bit they delayed you when they came late. Metro Transit buses are blood capillaries that pump in and out of the downtown heart where folks are moving but not wanting to be seen. Uptown, Northeast, by lakes and by campuses and by dive bars on rise is where people tell me you want to be seen. Metro Transit buses have big windows where these thoughts float out of sight and mind like clouds in the wide sky.

On the good days it feels like a Venice high in the sky. Your four wheeled gondola shared with a smattering of other people goes sailing down the light blue sky; your four wheeled gondola gliding on heaven to get you to the next earthly mess. The 19 – my four wheeled gondola – goes under the dark arches that connect concrete block buildings stretching out over two streets, making Hennepin Medical Center. Sunlight peaks out from the Hospital’s shadow until the 19 plunges fully into the bright light. It weaves up to the long and grassy green lawn in front of the Government Center. That building splits into two dark pillars wrapped together by a glass midsection and pulled tight by heavy black cross-lines so it looks like the corseted back of a boxy, cartoon-ish dominatrix.

After that the 19 comes through downtown where things look new and glassy and the construction turns everything to congestion and tightness. When it pops out into Hennepin it looks like one of those true downtown stretches full of bars and avante-garde buildings twisted up into modernist shapes. When breezes by the stadium, passes the brown and flat Transit Center, and leaks into Olson, it is just apartments and peaks down long and short residential roads.

On the bus a woman – White or Latina – sits and babbles brightly to her child. Another mom – Black – comes on and her toddler rushes up to the other kid and they seem to just stare before the parents direct them away, smiling and managing awkwardly. People come and people go. The driver lets a man know where to get off. The child leaves and the toddler cries for bit. Another mother and her kid – elementary age – comes on and picks up the transparent green binky the toddler dropped. The two mothers talk about the wide blue sky and the hot sun and the children all wrapped up in it; they talk on and past when my stop comes and I go.

~Austin R Ryan

The 5 Up and the 5 Down


I am in a new town so I am on new transit. For job training I have to go to up and up to the north end of Minneapolis so I am riding the 5 up and the 5 down. It is early and chilly and dry here. September is ending and everyone is huddled tight and small into jackets. When I left without one I doubled back so I could slink into it too.

The 5 stop is a few blocks down, on an intersection of two large streets. Where I am couchsurfing there are a lot of Somalian stores just on the near corner, and on the far corner where that street ends there is a hip record store called The Electric Fetus; in between all that there is a Wendy’s. About mid-way through the walk there is an overpass that looks through a rusted iron fence at the Minneapolis skyline. The buildings are tall and wide and glassy, mostly new but for some odd eggs like the Foshay. The sky is very wide and very open. The wide and blue of it is caught and pushed out a second time by the reflective skyscrapers so that looking at the cars all pour seamlessly inward feels like slipping into an undertow. It stops me for a minute and I let myself fall in and get washed around in the noise and the scenery.

It strikes me walking down the sidewalk that everyone here is unfamiliar, but it starts to matter less after each new city. At first it seems strange and indecipherable to be in a new brand of hectic city but after a while the elements bleed together. Nothing is so like Beijing or D.C. but nothing is so unlike them either. That feels very refreshing to me – akin to relapsing into a Jones soda or catching up with a friend from a while ago; familiar and unfamiliar. It scares me to imagine rural living because I don’t even have a frame of reference – wholly unfamiliar.

There are only a few people waiting at the same 5 stop as I am and even fewer that I can remember the look and bearing of. It takes a little while for the bus to get there, but it does and the man in front lets me know, friendly and folksy, where to swipe the bus pass I am borrowing. I am not feeling fine and out enough to reflect that energy well.

The first leg of the trip is through the city proper, us going underneath big buildings and near large malls. People really come and go around here. Once we clear into the north that’s when people quit their coming and going for settling and sitting. North Minneapolis has its troubles from what I am told and I believe all that, but in the daytime it does not matter so much. Walking to a specific destination down a big street during the day isn’t asking for trouble or anything else. It is odd to me that people feel keenly otherwise – imagining maybe rioting streets or lawless gang rule – but my worries over rural areas are as irrational – imagining horror movie sequences and serial killers. It is just difficult to get a frame of reference – planted wholly in the familiar.

As we get out of downtown and more towards the near north a woman gets on and starts to talk on the phone with some kind of legal counsel. It becomes clear she is prosecuting a case against someone as she reads out a list of charges in a perfectly flat and casual voice. It is hard not to eavesdrop because of how her casual and informal flow grinds against the seriousness of the various charges. After a while, overhearing her just becomes hearing her and it starts to feel zen to listen to the manifold charges wind out calmly – almost in procedure. I feel less worried; that might be a backwards response. I figure you could read her words backwards or forwards but what you should do was not read them at all and let them just be hers. It was already too late for me, and now it is too late for you too.

When I get off the 5 I actually missed my stop by a bit and pulled the wire before we had even reached a cross street. The bus driver stops right away anyways and I get back headed the right way. Coincidentally the right way has a cool look and a load of interesting stores – including what I think was a gas station painted entirely over with this somewhat abstract mural that my mind grasps more for the colors and swirls than the shapes and substance. I think there might be a Wendy’s up here too – in between everything else.

 

On the way back down the bus is at first empty of any other passengers. I am feeling fine and out enough to squeeze a small conversation from quiet bus driver while we figure out if my transit card has enough money on it. A really trendy and smartly dressed young woman comes on and graciously waits for me to sort myself out. For a while there is barely anyone on the bus but as we near downtown, it gets more crowded. A pretty drunk or just bizarrely enthusiastic and loud man swaggers on board and instantly tries to befriend the quiet bus driver. After a minimal interaction he declares success, screaming, “This is my man! This is my brother!” about the bus driver to the rest of the bus. He eventually saunters over to the middle of the bus and his thoughts spill audibly out – about half the full portion of his head tumbling out in accidental volume spikes. When another man comes on and is taking his time to pay at the front, the (presumably) drunk man offers to cover the charge. The whole bus, he declares, is family. The man paying upfront, maybe not feeling like family or too much like family, refuses the drunk man’s help once, then twice, and then sternly. The drunk man returns to his seat but he still holds on to the family point for a bit.

In what feels like just an instant we get downtown and people pour the bus back up to full. A girl who sounds about high school age sitting behind me. A bit later another man comes onto the bus and makes some kind of loud noise for some reason – I had stopped paying attention. I had stopped paying attention at a bad time because the girl behind me says, “damn son!” so loudly and resolutely and naturally that a good chunk of the bus chuckles; a middle aged woman even giggles herself into tears. She laughs and laughs, gearing up so much that a second wind sweeps over me and the rest of the bus and we all laugh and chuckle and smile again.

“Oh thank you.” She says to the girl, “I needed that.” Afterwards the laughing woman reassures the man too, “we are laughing with you not at you.” Being a good sport about the whole thing, he agrees that it was pretty funny. I still don’t know if it was pretty funny, or if it was even a comedy at all, but it might have been better that way.

A few stops down the line another girl who knew the first one comes in and they both settle quickly into a conversation. The one tells the other how she got the bus to laugh – seeming as surprised by the whole thing as I was – and the other tells the one how she just got done with a fight.

“Well, you look pretty good for just getting out of a fight.”

“Yeah she didn’t even have time to hit me.”

It all feels very nonchalant, but energetic and excited at the brims and edges.

They both sound pretty young, but I don’t really know how young they are. They go on for a bit back and forth about how some neighborhood folk gave the second girl’s pregnant sister some trouble. The first girl notes how that should be out of line while an old woman in a pink overcoat, with thick black sunglasses sits down next to me. She smells faintly like cigarettes in a surprisingly pleasant way and we both make eye contact and smile at each other for a moment. This woman is the stereotypical picture of the urban old woman – covered in fuzzy pink, clutching a cane and a plastic bag, big hat and big glasses that leave only her little grin showing – but I don’t really know how old she is.

Not long after that the drunk man stumbles off the bus angered and with others around him encouraging him to get gone. In a little bit I’ll leave too and so I get up and stand by the exit door. A man gives me a hello so warm that you’d think we knew each other. He thinks we do; he asks if we had talked to each other earlier and I say no, because we haven’t. When we get off he wraps an arm around my shoulders and tells me that he’s a homeless vet named Lorenzo and ask for three dollars for a bite to eat and I say I used up the last of my cash on the bus fare, because I had. His lips knit into a tight and small frown and his arm falls limply off of me. I apologize and wish him good luck before slipping off, away from the bus stop.

Public transit can be one of the most interesting sights in a city but also one of the most dull. The lottery of it is as much part of the city character as anything. Flitting moments of realities far outside of all my self-obsession drift into orbit for a second. It draws me out like a spectacle but it isn’t one. The moments are not mine and so I don’t have to chase them down for completion or explanation or plainly owe them or have them owe me anything at all. The moments apply like a texture on top of the smooth, simple, scheduled rhythm of city transit and blend in with the other sensory memories on top of other buses and subways and characters of other cities until it is all this familiar and unfamiliar thing I feel like I’ve seen and never seen.

Stray Observations between Two Homes: Night Skies


Travel isn’t a contiguous experience in my memory. It starts out that way but as the memory of it gets rusty only abnormal images in the transit stick out and the rest of the connecting bits between them disappear. I won’t tell you how I boarded my flights. I don’t really remember anything but stray observations so that’s the best either of us will get – what a generous person might call vignettes. It is not chronological either. Don’t get on my case about that – think of it is an artsy thing concerning time’s potential shape as line or a circle or an exotic fruit. And I know I have been keeping you waiting too, but I am still technically on vacation. Sorry, that is an unfair excuse for me. I’ve lauded this too often as a passion to pretend it is pure work now.

There were two clear skies in my travelling. The first one came before I had left physically but well into the time my mind was too eager to linger in Changzhou. I had come back from my normal dinner walk out to a strip with some chain restaurants. Since I’d return to American food I went to a western place to accustom my stomach to big meat proportions. I’d made a mediocre effort to meet a friend there but the cold was biting so we’d both stayed close to our homes instead. When I went back outside I made my normal walk back but I stopped twice because the night sky was clearer than I had ever seen it in Changzhou.

The first time I stopped inside a small circular plaza with streets that shoot out of it like tendrils penetrating into pertinent parts of the city nearby me. It was incredibly cold and incredibly quiet to the point where both things felt biting. Thin and dry equally, the silence and the cold had similar sets of teeth and I liked the feeling in a short measure. Then the cold started to seep in through the thin threads of my gloves so I kept on.

Second was when I slid into the tendril that spits me out closest to home and had walked a little bit down the road to my school. Out there I felt I had to stop. It was strange because I felt like I was settling a debt to the city. Maybe I was just acknowledging the clear sky it gave me before I was leaving – that is a kind thing. It probably sounds pitiful to you but it was stark to me that in the vastly dim sea above I saw a few speckles of light sailing around. It was stark and very kind the way they shined like they knew my metaphor hungry mind was chomping at bits for that kind of business. There were just a few sparkles but that kind of clearness was rare and I could even feel it in the way the air was only laced with coldness as I breathed it. Then my hands got cold again and I went in sniffling and numb at the ends.

When the second clear sky came I only looked once. The second clear sky was in Indianapolis. Mom had just grabbed me from the airport and we were making the familiar drive into the city lights toward home. It was kind of a meager skyline and I recognized every building. The little lights of still illuminated windows and blinking signals stuck out in the dark and helped shape out the skyscrapers. Above the sky blinked with at least twice the speckles I’d seen in Changzhou and for a moment I lost sense of my context. I looked out the window and said, “what a clear night! I can see a few stars.” My mind was still in China and my eyes were still smog spotting.

~Austin R Ryan

How To Be Alone With Words


Writing has always struck me as an immensely lonely experience. I have put content up on several blogs for over five years, and seen all sorts of fluctuations in views. Sometimes I strike a chord in nearby friends with a wary word of mine. Sometimes I win things with the sentences that I string together. That’s really rare. Most times nothing happens. I have reached out to my nearest and dearest to get sincerest feedback on my best shit but believe me the relief of the lonely is temporary. It is a fluctuation from the form, a brief shift in something fundamentally a thing for me and by me. I based it in solipsism since I was a boy. For me it has been a way to address the words that bite at the back of my brain and stain a page with them. Readers mostly come and go without matching a word of mine with theirs.

I am alright with that. I promise. This isn’t a guilt trip trap to get you to read more, so rest easy and go as far as you like.

A long time ago I was antisocial and hid away any words I did. I disliked the way other people talked and read, so I’d spray whatever I wanted out across a page and assume it’d go misunderstood. These days publishing the things I make is a solid love – but one I forget about. It is something real and often rewarding, though not always so consuming. Both back then and now I feel lonely in writing, even though currently I let people read me when I think I’ve prettied up. There’s nothing wrong with that though, and I am not trying to lodge a complaint or make a call.

I have asked plenty of people to connect to something, and I have had plenty oblige me. It is pretty nice, a great way to socialize. But, there’s a level of love for this thing I do almost rote that’s never really shared and probably shouldn’t be. There is an effort in writing that can’t fully be received when an hour’s write is a minute’s read, so it starts feel solitary – like the smoothness of a final draft hides the mountains climbed just to make it decent. There’s a way that even friends and family will fall off from my collection as it expands, too.

That’s okay. When I was younger I’d get sore about it, but then I got around to adulthood and understood their business better. They aren’t obligated and what they do read is more than enough for me now. When they read, the things they say always surprise me and often light up my whole week. But if I wrote for them – to chase down that sensation of togetherness – then I’d have stopped a long time ago.

I started writing a lot in fifth grade, so it’s been over a decade now and I think I’ve finally learned how to be alone with words. After this time dragging my linguistics alongside me, pipe dreams of a million readers and a bestselling book haven’t died, but I don’t think they need to for me to understand that an actual audience would not divorce the loneliness from writing. I’d still be sitting up alongside myself at night, digging up shallow ground I contrived to be deep to produce another story. I’d still be gratifying the things I found right and feeding or pouring out emotionality to keep myself on balance. Until I stop loving it, all these words are primarily for me. It is unfair to give a gift to yourself and pretend it’s for someone else.

Writing is lonely, but because it is for me. Writing makes me feel alright being alone because I use it to settle the scores I have with myself. It is not a proper way I measure myself, though sometimes I mess up and try to use it as a ruler. It is not a part of my struggle to be a better person and correct my shittier behaviors, though sometimes I’ve slipped up and used it as a soapbox. Nor is it enhancing my career or saving me money, though plenty of times I wished it did both. If anything, it lightens the load of managing all those other things and so it belongs mostly to me. Sharing it brings so many surprises and fine moments that I rarely regret it but in the end it is my way to properly settle with myself when no one else is around.

In America, a person can feel unaccompanied across any number of social circles. No one is bound by their social setting, they are encouraged to be free and fly toward the thing that gets them their personal glory. There’s no yuanfen or reincarnated spirits catching up over another lifetime. There’s often just that lonely feeling in knowing that any relationship can be transitory. I am alone in writing because anyone’s relationship to my writing is just as transitory, floating article to article based on their time tables – and saying that should never condemn them or me. I like being alone in writing, because ever since I started I’ve felt more like my relationship with myself isn’t transitory – Like I am by my own side. As I have come to let friends and family inspire me, I’ve felt our relationships may not be so transitory either. I might feel alone but seldom empty and for me that’s how to be alone with words.

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Running


I go out running every other day or so. After a while all of the runs blend together into one stream of pounding feet and burning air. I often run the same routes at around the same time on the same days a fixture. My body anticipates the release of energy.

In each thirty minute bouts a lot can happen and a lot can go unnoticed beneath the drone of sneakers smacking the concrete. Sometimes the sun shines so brightly and the wind does not show up at all. The heat dries out and creases cracks across my lips. The sweat works overtime and comes in smearing lines from top until it leaks to the bottom. On the hottest days it even seeps into the socks. The run becomes longing for the next stretch of shade. Sometimes a penetrating pain roars across one of my sides and I’d like to slow down. When my mind is pliable and my body insistent enough, I do.

There are those few days when it feels like the stare of slick sunrays is a sickness I am fighting. In those stretches I become obstinate. I don’t want to give an inch to the angry weather. The running form I had half learned across several semesters running cross country full unravels. It is raw, repetitive violent movement between me and the ugly muscle cramps the heat brought along. A cramp can feel like so many things. It can gnaw on the side like a wolf deep into the shank of a lamb or it can punch like an embittered rival pushed over an edge. It can even stab with the vigor of a fencer, precise and sharp where each tack lands. There’s no beating it fully. I can only transfer it to the track below and pound out a quicker path.

Running can chew through your deodorant and ruin your scent. It can cut your breath into bursts and kill your sound. It can shake your stomping legs, scrunch up your arms, and bend your back until your stature falls too. Running can make you ugly, but there are days where it is beautiful too.

On the right day, the wind blows merciful and the sun doesn’t outshine the shade. Strides become longer than usual, feet feel lighter than usual. Drips of sweat cool the skin in small doses, and gentle rushes of wind peel back the harder layers of the heat. On those days, I could look up in the sky and not mind my feet at all. I could keep eyes on the treetops and watch sturdy oaks tremble at the extremities. I could absorb the full blue sky and feel like I was swimming through a sea of air. I’d say hello to every neighbor and smile at all the dogs they were walking.

I wonder if it is those days I run for. In the back of my mind a voice tells me I won’t live longer for sucking in sick city air and bashing my ankles up against grey concrete. That voice speaks in harsh whispers of my budding addiction to the beta endorphins spinning across synapses. When I run it’s the sound that twists my daydreams into demons hounding at my heels. And when those words really set in I wonder if I run to dodge those demons. I wonder if I am running to be a better coward.

I don’t think it is as much as that, though it can feel like it is even more. It can feel like each step is over a threshold. When the whole wide sky stares down and bleeds ugly heat into my skin, I’d think it was a forge refining the iron inside me. So many dreams of dramatic action sparkle inside my skull and I’d swear there wasn’t a person in front of or behind me at all. Everything had faded and I finally fought myself into being the person I ought to be. The glowing image of some forgotten glory I could reclaim blasted in the back of my mind. When all that happens I wonder if I am chasing and lusting madly for something. I wonder if I am running to be a better person.

All that droning noise can drown out a lot of what happens in those thirty minute bouts. In all the wondering it is easy to miss the slick and neat trim of my shoelaces gliding along the edge of my fingers as I pull the shoe to fit my foot tight. The burning sensation of stretching hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps can fly under the radar. So goes the scratchy inhales and exhales of all sorts of air from the free and clean to the gaseous exhaust exiting cigarettes and tailpipes.

There’s a deep and resounding language in all that physical motion. Give your breath enough attention and you can catch blood cells oxidizing every step. Tuning into each step, it becomes clear how well your form fits your body and your shoes fit your feet. Falling completely into the sound around you reveals the power of the uptempo in your music, and the draw of the downtempo of city streets and sleepy neighborhoods. When I lean into every breath, step, and sound of a run, I don’t think I am running for the language in my head. When I am running, I don’t think the pontificating means much at all.

~Austin R Ryan

Tibet: Visting Kumbum Monastery Part 1


Before boarding the train to Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region proper, we had to see Kumbum Monastery. Kumbum provided the first real glimpse into the traditional Tibetan culture and religion that all of us had heard so much about.

Few places matter more to the Yellow Hat or Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism than Kumbum Monastery. Voices in media often speak of Tibet as one entity held tight by one faith. The reality has a few more grits to sort through. Tibet once had heavier pagan or shamanistic beliefs but these seriously started to lose prominence when one of Tibet’s great dynastic kings, Songtsen Ghampo took over. Songtsen was no small talent, quickly taking control of much of the Tibetan plateau and patronizing the region’s early Buddhism. Eventually he would even rout the forces of the Tang Dynasty.

Later on the Bon faith would arise in contrast of Buddhism, though it could never get quite as hard a hold. Tibetan Buddhists themselves could not quite agree on everything and splintered into several sects that rose and fall. The Dalai Lamas and the Gelug School now iconic across all the world started up in the 14th century with Tsongkhapa and a small town outside Xining that would become Kumbum Monastery.

Standing outside Kumbum
Standing outside Kumbum

Our bus wheeled up to the outer wall of Kumbum early in the day, just as it opened. We had all layered up but the cold winter morning could cut through any number of layers. The whole place was quiet except for us shivering and chattering. For a while everyone just stood outside, waiting for a signal from our guide to head in.

An eager salesman with a plucky grin spotted us. He had the reigns of a shaggy white pony in his hands and offered rides for anyone willing to pay. None of us were much pliable to the offer, though. As tourists we likely disappointed, not buying from the stands of handcrafted goods outside or opting in on pony rides. Most of us were saving up for Lhasa, a place bubbling with commerce and worship.

Doing business
Doing business

Aside from our group Kumbum did not have so wide an audience this early in the morning. A Tibetan woman and her kid came walking in with us and there were a few other folks scattered about. I do not doubt that, come a little later time, the place would get a bit more active. Still, Kumbum was a monastery slightly removed from the really big population center, so it may never have had so many worshipers as monks.

The sparseness of the monastery added to it anyways, at least for a visitor from far off. Generic holiness as I knew it always had this idea of solitude surrounding it. Generic holiness shows itself in form of a person alone in a church atoning, like in the movies. Yet if there was anything that the Yonghegong monastery in Beijing and my sometimes unstable routine of bible study taught me, it’s that faith and religion come alive when people come together underneath it. The people make the faith as much faith makes the people. That dialogue with an idea of something holy or unworldly good was always what gripped me.

Two people headed in to the monastery
Two people headed in to the monastery

Still, Kumbum easily shined through the biting morning cold and everything else that kept attendance away did not mean much. The monastery gradually wove upward into the side of slightly sloping mountain. The sharp red, gold and greens burst to life in the sunlight and from that moment I could feel myself romanticizing everything. I fought against that urge. I love the romantic but it can really run against you if you really want to grip something.

Red arches welcomed us into the monastic compound. Our long linger in the cold came to an end with a row of white stupas topped with colorful spirals at their tops and intricate colored patterns at the bottom. Each stupa represented a different part of the Buddha, Shakyamuni’s life and teachings. The sun shined down and the tour guide led us further in. First we visited a few rooms on the outside of the complex, shrines to various religious figures. We could not take pictures inside and unfortunately my memory cannot hold all the specific images. Still, the colors in all the temples, the deep reds and oranges stitched into so much incredible quilt work, and the glimmering gold of mighty statues has not left me. Rather, the colors just bleed into a mess of mixed images that won’t separate for all my pulling at them.

neatly lined up stupas
neatly lined up stupas
A closer look at the stupas
A closer look at the stupas

We walked through the thick and brilliantly colored cloth that covered the thresholds of some of the shrines and dropped small donations as we went. Sometimes we got shawls in payment for a donation. They feel thin to the hand and would not combat the cold, but they have beautiful color and decoration. They came with a meaning too, red for passion and love, orange for prosperity, and so on. Even with the meaning attached the shawls reminded me that I was as strange as a person could be to this place, separated by layers of culture thicker than a thousand of these shawls.

The tour guide showed us complex statues made from Yak butter, and important offer given to Tibetan temples and monasteries, before we walked off the beaten path to somewhere deeper in. Along the route we ran across some monks making their way into the main complex where we would soon be. They worse Nikes and eagerly eyed their smart phones.

So much color!
So much color!

It might seem a sharp contrast, but Buddhism and Capitalism do not often clash so much. Even before capitalism ever came about, any religious order needed money and resource to stay alive. Often those resources had to come from the surrounding towns, the monks and abbots too busy with holy scripture, prayer or meditation to manage all on their own. So monks in many places lived as a privileged class funded through heavy donation.

My father never pushed Buddhism very hard on any of us, but he had demystified it for me. Buddha does not wipe away the little terrors people feel. Even monks stay human, eating human food, finding human shelter, at least until the accounts say they burst into clouds of lotus flowers. Like any religion Buddhism could coexist alongside anything from something as small as smartphones or as sinister as fanatical violence. I was glad to see monks in Nike’s as another reminder to not fetishize faith.

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Lessons from The Chinese Server, part 1


Without knowing a word or character of Chinese, I decided to study abroad for a semester at Peking University. At the time I foolishly expected much of the world to move to my mother tongue. My interests in Chinese economy and history ran deep, and my advisor told me that I would need to know the language to continue to pursue my interests.
The curiosity for China did not stop at figures and books. Something about the unfamiliarity of the country’s philosophy, language, and even geography created in me an idea of a wholly unfamiliar people. I suppose I wanted something to explore. Perhaps that thirst for exploration plunged me into the Chinese league servers. I knew I wanted to play League in China as soon as I submitted the application to go abroad.

For a twenty something male, the desire should not seem so out of place. In my life back home League formed a legitimate means of communication. My friends sometimes spent entire nights on the NA server. We gleefully constructed ridiculous team comps and ideas. Other times we tried to semi-seriously push our ranked 5 team up the ladder. After playing League for so long, the game started to become a type of social indicator. The way that you played League reflected on how you behaved in real life, and who you associated with. When I first began, I played with a friend who took the game more seriously and stressed about winning games. He did not rage and loathed the raging community around him. We enjoyed painting the game with this sort of heaviness.We enjoyed trying to win and get better. As time went on, we both transitioned into college. He stopped playing League.

I continued with a new group with a much goofier attitude. We like to mess around. We created two ranked 5 teams dedicated to goofing off in game. Our first team, Lock In and Wreck Face, required us to instalock a full team and try to win with whatever we got. In our second team, Off Brand Cereal, we got to pick our champs but we had to use off-builds and go into weird lanes. The time constraints of double majoring, continuing to write creatively, running an internet radio show, and going steady with a girl meant that I could not play with that same serious mentality.

I wanted to play League in China for a lot of superficial reasons. I did not want to get too rusty. I wanted to see if Asian players were truly gods amongst men. I wondered whether their meta differed and what champs they played. At the end of the day, I just enjoyed Leaguing. Above all these, two reasons pushed me into going through the odd process of creating a Chinese account. League reflected attitudes in real life and to me it seemed a window into a Chinese gaming mentality I knew nothing of. Do people rage, do people troll, do people run goofy comps? I wanted to know because the answer to each question taught me something of a reality still mysterious to me.

The biggest pull came from my absolute Chinese illiteracy. Hard fought loss or an outright stomp, even losing a game of league took effort. I tired of hearing so much bickering. I grew up in a house with three older sisters and a bit of a hot head dad. I wanted the thick sort of skin that could steel me against a household bursting full with wild emotion. Failing to keep my cool fostered this deep feeling of inadequacy. It gripped deep into my chest and pulled at this long standing desire for emotional strength. Every time I queued up and felt some fury, those talons clawed away at my self-image. In China, I could League and appreciate the game all in my lonesome. No matter what anyone said it literally could not scathe me. I felt damn sick of the other players. I wanted a chance at the silence and purity of play that NA could not give me.

I broke into the Chinese server, following the complex guidelines set out to me by a Reddit post. I needed to play bots before I entered PvP. Mulling over who to pick for my first bots game abroad, I spotted the Chinese art. The Chinese splash art looked gorgeous. Karthus went from a skeleton with silly hat and a big robe to a terrifying, no faced necromancer with burning eyes and a gilded staff. Twitch had longer arms and legs, looking like a scrawny and more humanoid anthropomorphized rat. He looked like a more PG version of the visually reworked twitch. Cho’Gath resembled a terrifying, gargantuan monstrosity ripped loose from the void. The Chinese splash art raised the bar on almost all occasions. It gave the game a polish I never realized the game could use.

Splash arts never came across my mind in America. Back home I played set roles and set champions. I had certain top laners and marksmen that I preferred, and a pool of owned champions to select from. In China, I could choose any sort of Champion. Sure, I still knew what I liked, but once you threw out the meta, the rune pages and the masteries, every champion played a lot differently.
When it came time to pick a champ, it took me longer to deliberate. During the races against the clock to secure a champ, the splash arts seriously came into play. Seeing a champion in this sheen of idealized glory made them more enticing. In those last minute decisions, the splash art conveyed a quick feeling of the full glory of a champ. As a player brought back to level 1, not knowing which champ to pick, it made all the difference.

Even old favorites like Wukong had this almost preposterously badass look about them. The whole visual styling in China felt different, but more appropriate. China focused on evoking images of intense battle and heroic power out of each splash art, as where the NA server had a more playful and light focus. I preferred China, because to me it just fit. I am a summoner controlling one of the most powerful entities in a world, even if I am just playing a game. It helped that for the most part the Chinese splash art seemed better drawn.

In the very first co-op vs. AI match I played, our Blitzcrank rallied four of us to the tribush near the bot tower. We cheesed first blood and beat the bots into the dirt. For a second I let the prospect of an inherently more talented server carry my mind away. Over the next few days the Blitzcrank free week faded along with the rose tint on my glasses. The early levels provided a lot of easy wins. It felt unkind to stomp new players. Luckily it did not take long for games to become battles between smurfs. As I climbed my match history evened out with wins and losses. At around the tenth game matchmaking placed me in with the rest of the smurfs. I started playing games at level 8 where teams took dragon and occasionally used junglers and supports.

It seemed no different than smurfing in NA. Smurfs still lacked runes and spells to play all positions. Supports and junglers did not exist. Ideal team comps did not exist. All bruiser teams duked it out against all burst mage teams. Even all smurf games looked messy and strange. It provided a pleasant reminder of the days when I loaded up a smurf to play with low level friends. That familiarity felt soothing in a place where the trees, the birds, the spiders, and the air I breathed all looked different. When arriving, the foreignness of it scared me so deeply. It felt terribly lonely without school friends to speak with. Knowing nothing of the language sometimes put me into isolation. It became tiring to function at a basic level. League provided a rejuvenating normalcy to retreat to.

Part 2 Coming next weekend.

 

~Austin R Ryan

Light and Heavy


 

Light and Heavy

 

            Another song detailing the deep inner pain of the singer comes up on shuffle. Another quivering voice metes messages out for my ear by belt and whisper. Music, and really any art form, carries some crazy burdens. Folks cannot go wandering around screaming half mad about anger issues, social tissues eschewed apart, and every heavy hang up. Yet every inch of perplexing shit piles up bit by bit until the break in the middle of the back hits. Cathartic expression’s a good way to keep depression away.

In the mix of shuffling it all up, all of the on the cusp emotionally rough trod singers come bubbling up with their baggage in hand. Within all that blight something like Flight of The Conchords and Weird Al will stick out sore as the one thumb that a hammer flight of the concordsnever hit. Humor hits like a brick through a small town store window in a landscape formed up far and wide in emotional anthems. Still, when my patterns withstand I return to that endless hectic mesh of messy emotional land. For maybe a month I flirt with The Lonely Island, but in no time the light of the raw fleshed out fury of Modest Mouse, Florence + The Machine, and Cold War Kids pull my moth self right back into old ways. I cannot say a word on the way you feel. My tiny bubble in the big blue sea tells me most folk don’t stick to songs formed of pure parody. The pieces may fall into a difference puzzle for others.

Satire taken straight does not always stick but playing endless on problems weighing tons turns un-fun. When a band lets everything go and manages at a mix of heavy and light, that’s what gets me. Interest pins me flat when the tune carries a bit of contrast. That humor has a draw that pulls back and a press that does not lay me out against sea beds.

Man Man made themselves a favorite of mine with an endless interplay of dark and goofy. Tracks told stories outright absurd and wretched but carried with a playful wit. Haute Tropique chimes open a spread of plodding xylophone strokes. The slow trumpets blare in with the bouncy piano beat. The singer, Honus Honus, twists the half demented half happy tune into the tale of a creative cannibal. The song oozes the angst of the mad man, as Honus Honus clambers out a shaky chorus. “I comb my hair! I brush my teeth! I eat my peas like a good boy’s supposed to”. Each odd act comes laced with layers of dark humor. “The fireman’s an ashtray The DJ spins as fan blades”. Dark humor serves a nice departure from some of the over-dramas.

 

 

It is not always about twisting humor and horror together. Mother Mother plots playful lyrics out on waves of feeling backed by cute indie dance beats. A song called The Stand reads like a day at the therapist’s office mixed with the chatty gossip of a grade school playground. Sickeningly sweet high pitched female vocalists ring questions in on echoes. The protagonist smooths out each answer with odd blends of sophistry, faux philosophy, and anxiety. “Tell me your fears” the voices casually ask. The guitar strings out a simple progression and the drum pats out a light rhythm in the background. “Okay, it’s everyone here” the man responds, “Yeah, and all of their peers, and all of their pets, and their chandeliers, and their cigarettes. I haven’t smoked in years!” All the while the drums build with each question until a pleasant mesh of synthesized songs explodes out into a chorus endemic with anxiety.

“I can hardly stand the sight of it all,

I can hardly stand the sound of it all,

I can hardly stand the taste of it all,

I can hardly stand the smell of it all”

Yet it sounds fun, playful, light and brimming with inane humor the whole way through. The songs sound like such a treat. I am constantly pounding deep media into the banks of my brain. When I take a trip to see something silly it floats so light I hardly want to take hold of it. Something feels reassuring about ending up in the middle where humor and heartache intersect.

~Austin R Ryan