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.

Mulberries


The walk to the nearest grocery store is about 20 minutes in whatever weather Changzhou has for me – usually rain and wind. I call this local Tesco the fish market and if you went in I think it would be clear why. All along the way up to Tesco there’re a lot of things happening but in Tesco there’s even more going on. There are two floors to it, the first having clothes and shampoos and anything else you shouldn’t eat if you can’t help it. My little fish market isn’t so packed on the first floor but ‘packed’ is relative even past the normal standards for most adjectives and it’d be too crowded for a lot of folks I know back home. Up top where the food is it gets truly hot and hectic.

A kind of low-sloped escalator walkway leads slowly up to the top floor where all the heat has risen and sticks around in glops. Right out front are the bread, fruit, and fish sections where most people crowd around to inspect the fresh food for the freshest food. Kids are clamoring and people are talking up more hot air to feed into the already hot and healthy glops. The glops crowd around with the smell of fish and bread and fruit until eventually things yield into pre-packaged things such as Oreos and other big cookie and snack brands. All of the checkout stations wrap around in an L at the front – the smaller side of the L being quick shop stations that are rarely open. After a normal ten to fifteen minute wait with my red bag bloated up with daily things I step out of the whole place back into the relative cold.

Along the way a friend says she’s nearby so I go looking a little bit and after not catching her come into a chain bakery called Bread Talk. In China most folk don’t have ovens or like to bake so there are bakeries everywhere. In the back of the warm and orange tinted Bread Talk there’s a row of drinks packaged with deep primary colors that stir me. I go to the one with blue so dark it nearly seems like velvet. It’s shaped like a little jug and the top is wrapped off with a cloth on top like homemade jam. It’s mulberry juice.

It feels cold on the edges of my hot fingers just recently roughly wrought by the hard and heavy pull of my red bag full up with food for the week. It’s not competing on price but I am buying on feeling so that doesn’t matter. As soon as it’s sold I peel the cloth wrapping off and twist it open. It is cold and deep and rich.

My best childhood friends live down the block and a little ways away from a mulberry tree whose sweet fruit hangs its branches low. We were lower stooped back then but reached up enough to pull the mulberries down and I remember my friends introducing that kind of taste to me. It was sort of like a blueberry in taste, without the sweet bite of sugary juice. Blueberries are tense capillary fruits with thin skins full to burst with juice and flavor, but mulberries have a more mellow grind – like a less intense raspberry.

It is cold and deep and rich. I am ambling back to my home in Changzhou on muscle memory-based navigation because my head’s back underneath that mulberry tree; I am clinging onto branch like those rich little berries. That day the skies were gray in China but I was looking up and feeling the light blue of humid Indianapolis summers. There were white clouds above me, white clouds as fluffy as my thick sighs after each greedy glug of the deep blue – almost purple – juice. I am home in Indy now and walked the family dog underneath that mulberry tree. I had forgotten how all the berries fall and stain the concrete sidewalks with smatters of purplish blue and bluish purple. I had forgotten how small it really is now. Despite all that the sky is really just as wide and just as blue; the clouds are still fluffed up as Midwestern sighs.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 5: Airplane Bathroom


It is a few hours into the flight and I’ve just woken up from a very fitful sleep. When I woke up everything in the airplane was gentle with the quiet shifts of people in light sleep and quiet engagements that cut small shadows out from the soft light. My head had ran up against the arm rest and mussed up my hair pretty badly. For a while I did not notice but eventually my hand ran through my hair and something did not feel right. In the reflection of my phone I saw the full damage and quickly decided to go to the airplane bathroom to fix it.

The plane had no turbulence and no one but some flight attendants were paying attention. It crossed my mind that I could maybe just pat or comb the hair down in my seat and not draw any attention, but I was bored. The airplane was dim, littered only with little movements, and my long arms wanted to yawn large out on the open of the dark blue aisle carpets. I pulled out a bag of product and swiftly slipped out from my seat and into the aisle. My eyes flickered toward the attendants and a few other sleepless people to see if I was being noticed. I clutched my bag tight. My memory is spotty and sometimes I think some people looked at me, but only in that passive way that people use to track some new motion – besides, I wondered why it mattered anyways that I caught any attention.

Hair is an odd thing. Recently I had got mine cut into a shape entirely new for me where the sides and back are short and the top is long meaning it requires some kind of product to maintain. I know that this is a pretty normal style but I have always cut my hair short then let it grow again. My hair is uncooperative generally, forcing itself to fall straight in one direction so that it sproings up against any product and challenges what I try to do with it so I was hesitant to have to make a working relationship with it where I actually asked something from it. Maybe two months prior I’d not known how to use hair gel and in the small space between then and now I’d had my eyebrows trimmed and a quick routine with hair wax down pat.

Hair is an odd thing because of how core it can be to identity. Even just a bit ago I’d had different standards for my hair; I hated for it to be dirty and coarse and generally wanted it hygienic and conditioned but I never dared step past cleaning; the path seemed treacherous and time-consuming – which at first it was. Now I was working with two tins of product and trying to make it stand in a way that wouldn’t hide my features and my hands plied fast to the management of the unruly strands. I dipped into one tin of styling clay meant to stem rebellion and swiftly after into another tin meant to style follicle society into something smooth moving and sweet smelling.

I used to simply not want another thing on my hands so I kept on an easy pattern with my hair that involved about as much laziness with comb as you could manage. To be fair, the adventure into styling is a bit risky and I feel unless you have the compliant wires of some kind of a celestial model shining in the disgustingly kempt way a distant star does you are bound to have a bad hair day at least once while learning the ropes. Hair products exist in plethoric abundance fit to all sorts of niches and designs. When you first wander into their aisles odd names strike out in italics laced fonts focus tested to get your attention – they say hello. You say hello back but it’s an abortive greeting – it is not exactly what you want to say! Who you are? What do the words on you mean to me? You’d ask all that but the words are upfront and ugly in front of pretty things.

At the start most folk only know about a sociable fellow named gel and that was my only point of contact too. Gel, if you’ve never made the acquaintance, is a nasty and formidable beast that can do perhaps more than you want it to – a creature that you know to seek out for the same reason others know to avoid and treat with caution. In my first reckoning with it I knew nothing of it but what it did to the aforementioned blazing celestial model bodies plastered on the packaging, so I smacked a dollop into my hair without even rolling it into a thin layer across my palms and fingers first; this is a recipe for disaster. I tried in earnest to spread the clear and heavy solution across the outer ends of my hair and lace it into something and it turned out a half-organized mess of lopsided strands hardened into odd directions. Only after a few hours eagerly listening to words of YouTube-based hair sages did I realize all the other strange materials you could spread in your hair – I picked up some conversation topics for when I returned to all the brand names; I knew how to cut the curves of the question marks so they were smooth. I realized there was a whole weird world outside of gel – which was good because even when spread right, my gel was a thick and all too forward kind of slime; even when my hair stood up just right, it felt wrong.

In the airport bathroom I felt confident in slicking the styling clays – that I’d come to know on my own and through mutuals – from root to tip across hairs and riding it all as it were a wave toward a tight end at the back of my head. In fact I had come to love the pure motion of it; there’s a pleasant smoothness to swishing all those individual threads into a single fabric with one loose pull toward an end. I’d always liked running a hand through my hair to feel the smooth sensation of several separate things entwining together and I had worried rightly gel wouldn’t allow that; gel does not allow it, but all the other shadowy figures and strange foreign names in the hair aisle do.

What still vexes me a bit is how I got here, to this conversation. It was a bit dizzying to jump from lowest effort hairstyles to one of these low cut back and side modern things that extend out from a wider whirl occurring deep beneath hair follicles. I could apply that same question to where I stand generally too. I’d picked up a lot of things I never worried about before – applying past hair; Collagen moisturizer for my dry shoulders that itch on winter nights showed up in my bathroom one day; right next to it a sleek and futuristic looking black and blue container repairs the damage done by facial cleansers and razors; my two blade razor had retired quietly and a fancy orange striped five blade one replaced it. Something behind all of these things felt curious and fun; I chased these things ultimately because I wanted to. Had I always wanted to? If so, what stopped me?

The chase at first felt a bit heavy, leaving dripping thoughts on the proper masculinity of moisturizers. Perhaps the roadblock was as plain as that. At this point I probably still give a damn how things seems, but a sizably smaller damn than I used to give; why not look the cashier in the eyes while I buy two flavored lip balms? What’s there that I can dodge? Would I dodge it by getting a ChapStick with MEN plastered all over it? That’s entirely more homoerotic… I had one of those flavored lip balms in my hand now and applied it easy, in that same smooth motion of pulling hair into place. The moisturized feeling is plenty fine and so is the shine that comes around the lips.

So how did that barrier go down? Masculinity is a tricky thing to wrangle. It’ll kill you if you aren’t stern and careful with it; I am genuine – it has sharp and phallic horns that penetrate and gore. My bisexuality’s a generic answer but not one I discredit; I can’t deny trends began changing when I started stating plainly to myself and others that I liked sex with men; first I stated that to myself and then spread the news from there where it felt natural – or just awkwardly obligated. There’s a bundle of nerves and oddness that goes in taking on that identity and it’s a bundle I’ll write on when I’ve untangled it (hey – maybe never). Even now it feels a little foreign to claim it – a social contact I definitely know but can’t quite tell what to call when I cross it on the corner. No matter how many alternating romantic fantasies of each gender I indulge, no matter how it goes in reality, it feels in an instant I could fall to either side of the line. After tipping over to a side I’d regret ever saying I straddled the middle line as I fed old sayings I’d heard: “rooting for the other team” “looking for attention,” etc. It is all tired words that make me tired too. Well, one thing I can say early was that something about slipping on the moniker made adding some trappings that went with it easier.

Adding the trappings was a somewhat unconscious action with only correlating relationships, which makes the precision of it harder to detect. I asked a gay friend why men put on the kind of lispy affectation – the stereotyped gay voice – and he said he didn’t really know. Now that I stood with an I-give-a-shit hairstyle and clothes that I had selected based on whether they actually match, I couldn’t say why any bit of gayness made that – or the pairs of paints that fit slicker to the long slimness of my legs – more compelling. Maybe it was always compelling but now it was easier to admit and become swallowed up in; maybe it was not even fair to lay it out in that way, with that kind of question to him or to myself. There is nothing inherently homosexual in a sleek and clean of a tight-fit image. All I could really say was that I made changes out of enjoyment, a sort of fullness of embracing outer as well as inner and I want to make more changes as the same enjoyment arises.

As I sized myself up and smoothed out my shirt so it could get crumpled up against the airplane’s seats again, I’d remembered what my Mom said. When friends asked about the new style or when I told it, I’d often blame it on the bisexuality. Only my Mom challenged that laziness in slipping into a generic thought. “It is also because you are growing up.” She said. And I realized how my haircut resembled my Dad’s, how he’d apply ChapStick in the car, or even employ a mouth spray; I remembered buying him cologne one holiday – though that’s always been a masculine read for perfume. If all this primping existed as a manly thing to hover inevitably toward, why did it feel so disguised? Was it just me missing the new issues of GQ? Maybe the memo was there in my inbox and I just never read it. It is obvious now as I grow up that apathy’s a great path to a crap end and you ought to put your image together for yourself if no one else; I am not exactly sure why it wasn’t obvious then.

Stepping out of the airport bathroom into the quiet airplane I felt unsure of exactly how I arrived at the conversation I was having but I felt as sure as ever of what I was saying. With my black flip comb stuffed neat in my pocket and a hand running along the swivel in my hair. At the end it boils down to the feeling of dragging all those hairs together, patching all that dry skin into one smooth surface – a feeling I like. In the end it is just the look and feel of things in the odd low-light glow of a sleepy international flight.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 4: Handkerchiefs


Travelling through Shanghai was a mess. People communicated less well than in Changzhou despite knowing English and the signs made less sense despite directing more folk. After searching and asking around for a train that leads straight to the airport I gave up and decided to take the metro. This was easier to manage but trying to get tickets I stalled for a bit which allowed a lady to come up and help me with the task. It turned out to be a scam for money on her end and I realized if I made a fuss she’d leave but staring at the strange hope she had clutching to ten yuan notes it all felt kind of petty. I gave the ten RMB up.

It made me remember visiting NYC for the first time. Oh right, you clump up people and they get strange. Often times they get outright terrible like heavy traffic grit’s gotta make you gritty too. I don’t like it but maybe it’s just the function of what’s made my form. Growing up with Indy’s small city politeness and then studying in DC’s company town professional aura makes the aggressiveness of real metropolises seem ugly. Maybe not always ugly but rarely pretty.

There was another foreigner looking at the subway map the same time as me. I left early but he’d catch up with me later and we talked a long time. He had the modern man kind of cut with short hair on the sides and back and the rest product-ed upward slightly. This was something I’d look to do with my hair later. He’d been in China for longer than me but hadn’t studied it as much. Most English speaking foreigners did not have a direct interest in China and more a curiosity for a teaching job. I can’t fault that at all given how crucial employment is even just for the confidence of a person. I was just lucky interests aligned with a position. More and more I am realizing that.

I think we were each agreeable and sharing a travel struggle so we hung around one another for a while. He had confirmed what I suspected all along and told me I was being underpaid at my current job. Effectively he was making double my salary and it was something I suspected at the beginning of my program. The way he put it down I think he wanted me to be madder than I was but honestly I had a feeling early and accepted the cheaper payment because I wanted a way into something interesting. It had provided that. In a conversation compromise he admitted he’d have done the same as me out of that same impulse to get moving. Don’t mistake the jostling of salaries as much – it is common practice in China and one that bled into us. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve been asked my salary. I enjoyed the company of the man kind of like me, living here at the same stage of life doing something similar.

China had invigorated him and working here made him reluctant to even visit home. I did not pry but his history intrigued me from the bits of it I snuck peaks at. He was going to be a cop but decided to go abroad first. He had been in two long term relationships that had ended. I had been in just one but the way he described the meandering and hesitant aftermath thick with frustration and distance resonated in an easy way. He was a native Floridian. Of the few Floridians I have met, none have seemed to like their home state yet. On my end I was excited to return to old home from new and have a nonsensical pride and love for an average Indiana that would probably forsake me on my weirder traits when the chips really hit the table. But that’s all unnecessarily cynical. At the end of the interaction he talked about going to Changzhou and I felt no problem opening my home to him.

We got to talking about handkerchiefs. This sprung from discussing his time in the Philippines which sprung from discussing travel. He posed the keen question of where I wanted to go or end up and I answered noncommittal because there are only two cultures that naturally called to me and now I vacillate between them. I am not that interested in seeing the world for all it is. Travel feels burdensome.

The Shanghai airport is properly looming and full of empty air. The ceilings are so high that birds could nest up there somewhere, though they could not live there. I have seen a solid number of things and my memory gets hazier when I add more. Living in a place – I’ve only done that three times. I could stand to do it a few more times.

Anyways – handkerchiefs. In the Philippines, as he told me, a lot of people use them. I wondered at the practicality of it because a tissue seems like a one use thing and after that use you’d rather not touch it much. He said that they were more useful through being washable and that most folk just kept a big store of them on endless rotation. Later on in the flight I’d watch The Intern, which felt so distinctly well made along average standards that it confused me. It felt like a thing people would examine later to determine changing mores in our day – or just a movie that would safely appease every family member. Handkerchiefs were an oddly central theme and a kind of stand in for a polite and un-intrusive masculinity the movie saw as nearly lost to modern times. It was strange enough to run into a dialogue about handkerchiefs in real life and stranger still to find it in fiction right after. In one day I had heard more arguments to carry handkerchiefs than I had in the rest of my life. The arguments to carry handkerchiefs were effective but as I am heading to back to China there are still tissues in the pockets of my fluffy red jacket.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 3: Airplane People


Hey, just so you know, these don’t run in sequence. You can read whichever little piece you want without having to know the other. Anyways, isn’t it oddly intimate and strangely contained sitting next to strangers for over ten hours?

On the Airplane I sat next to an old Chinese man from Wuxi and a woman from the Sichuan province. The old man was with his old miss who sat next to the lady from the Sichuan province. When they got to talking the Sichuan woman asked where they were from, because she couldn’t understand them. It was strange because I could catch most of what they said, but Wuxi is very close to Changzhou. Somehow I started talking with them and they were all very pleasant and as we small talked in that official Mandarin common tongue. The old man wore a Purdue shirt and I told him I was from Indiana and he told me he had a kid in university there. I wanted to show him the tickets I had from when I went on a day trip to Wuxi but for some reason I didn’t. The Sichuan lady talked to me on and off about things I can’t remember. It felt swell to be able to swap simple sentences though.

Once she even asked me what the dessert dish was – it was a chocolate mousse. I translated the word mousse to tell her but apparently it does not have a food meaning in Chinese so she first asked if it was edible and then corrected me to say jelly. Though I then felt this was incorrect, because as far as I am concerned if it is chocolate it can’t be jelly or jell-o. It had to be a pudding or a mousse or something else. Languages have so many gaps between them you are bound to fall in at some point so I did not press the issue any further after she corrected me.

In front of me there was a little mischievous boy with a perfectly circular face and big sideways poking ears making trouble masquerading as some small simian – maybe a little lemur – and pestering for attention. He had shot up from his chair a few times to give me ubiquitous stares which I met with waves and all sorts of faces. It didn’t faze him. When I let my long legs loose and pushed up poke toes out underneath his chair he smacked the edges of my feet. It didn’t faze me.

Little lemur child and I naturally developed a storied airplane history. He was stretching up at the reading light above him and his parents were too tired to stretch arms up for him. On his behalf I hailed a stewardess and pointed her toward him. She’d had enough of his monkey machinations and row running explorations already and curtly pointed to the little remotes in the seats that managed the lights. Guess I should have known that well enough. The little lemur child would not acknowledge the help of either of us anyways and as the polite Americans we were it of course made us both a little sore.

Children are tough entities to strike reason into or extract reason from. They do and you deal with it because they were compelled by some wrenching invisible force to do whatever they just did. I am not sure this one ever actually slept and I am not sure his parents were ever awake more than an hour. The boredom for him must have been a bit rigid so he popped up at me a few times and made perfectly neutral expressions pretty much no matter what I did so gradually I became mostly neutral to him.

I got up to the bathroom a lot that flight because I could not get much sleep either – an unpleasant surprise – and they kept refilling my jasmine tea – a pleasant surprise. Finally the old man whose slumber I kept disturbing arranged a seat swap with me and his wife. Once I settled into the aisle I saw the boy’s round head and satellite ears crop up. His eyes shot to me and for a second the neutrality had faded for a bit of disappointment. Some of my neutrality faded though I don’t know in favor of what. At the end of the flight I’d accidentally scuffle him with the edge of my backpack. He protested for a second and I apologized for a second and no one seemed to notice either way so we both stopped and set our eyes forward. When we landed it was like everyone felt too weary to do anything but get out quickly with eyes downward.

~Austin R Ryan

Changzhou, Indianapolis, and Loving the Average


A while has passed and now I have lived near half a year in the city called Changzhou. I have travelled the nearby cities well enough to lose my camera while drunk. Would you like to see some stellar pictures of Hangzhou? Well, I can tell you some pretty swell things to Google. If you’ll give me a thousand words or so I’ll paint you an odd view of Changzhou.

Here is what you must understand about Changzhou: it is middling. It is the burning embodiment of average raised up on an Eastern heavenly mandate. I can hear you wiki’ing in the distance this city along the Yangtze and wondering aloud how four million folk in a place with three thousand years of history could ever be average. That is China for you. That density and age make for a notable place is an American notion I carried for probably pretty long and dropped maybe three months after living in Changzhou, Jiangsu, China. Density and history are near everywhere where I am now.

Jiangsu is a notable province in China. Look no further than Jiangsu for behemoth megacities, former capitals of long-lasting dynasties, mountains, rivers, and beautiful gardens all along banks and the slopes. When you look just don’t dig at exceptional in Changzhou. Just so you know the dynasty that sat capitol on Changzhou – metropolis formerly known as Wujin or Piling – only lasted around a year. There are rivers and canals in Changzhou, but they don’t compare to Suzhou – the Venice of Asia. There are woods and parks in Changzhou too but the city known for lakes and trees – Hangzhou – is two hours away in Zhejiang province. You will find plazas and historic streets in Changzhou but understand that in Nanjing the plazas memorialize massacres potent and lingering ugly on the sticky start of the 21st century and in Changzhou the plazas are right outside of amusement parks. The historic streets in slim little Wuxi stretch out for a while in devotion to old kingdoms enshrined in classical literature. Here I have to be fair because Changzhou has a historical boulevard sprung up from famous ancient literature too – only it is just one block of one street lined with some very high quality comb shops.

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Here is where I get brutal and desecrate my hasty made Chinese home like I am a dog with no shame. The unexceptional nature of Chanzhou is welded straight into its name. Chang (常) means ‘average’ or ‘common’ and Zhou (州) used to mean ‘prefecture.’ Zhou might just be the most common thing to fix to the end of a Chinese city name. If you got one solid character on deck to describe that riverside Chinese city you are building you just slap zhou on the other end and get business moving. What this means is that Changzhou was deliberately and consciously named Averageville potentially as early as near 600 AD. That name fits all five fingers and lines tight right around the wrist of this place.

This is where I tell you that I am not being mean, that I am actually being loving in my honesty. This is where I profess my love for the average over a long and slipshod drawn comparison of two average homes I have known. I have judged Changzhou for being boring, dull, and riding the median line. I have made my fair share of jokes, calling Changzhou “too chang” for the cool things other cities have, but the ugly truth is that my hometown has no room to talk. Let me confess – Indianapolis is the American Changzhou.

The linguistic lineup should strike immediate. Though Changzhou does directly translate to something like “Averageville,” indirectly it may as well translate indirectly to Indianapolis. American naming conventions are far too furiously erratic to name a place Averagevile, but Indianapolis comes close to that mark. Polis being the Greek part of city, Indianapolis is effectively Indiana City. Even at its historical root it would have meant Indian City which is impressively more generic than the current iteration.

One of the funny things that happen when I introduce myself to Chinese folk is most guess I live in Shanghai. I say I am not, and they say, “No! Maybe you are in Nanjing?” When it becomes clear where I really live they just ask why. What am I doing here? Why am I not somewhere else? It is funny to me because when I meet a curious sort of soul in Indianapolis – maybe an odd foreigner or just a transplant – I ask the exact same. Hey, why are you here? Nice to have you and all but Chicago is three hours up that way. Did you consider Memphis? Minneapolis? Both Changzhou and Indianapolis sit in the intersections of more interesting locations and leave you wondering whether folk are just wandering through. For me it does beat living in the far rural fringes where everything feels distant.

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Don’t get it too twisted. These two cities may lack in naturally interesting things but they have their ways of recuperating. Amusement parks are one prominent answer. Changzhou has three amusement parks right inside of it. The first and foremost is the actually renowned Dinosaur Park which combines exhibits of fossils with a small collection of rides and a massive assortment of intriguing dinosaur-based entertainment and scenery. It is hard to describe and you’ll have to see the pictures below, but the makers of Dinosaur Park must have feared that giant Jurassic lizards were not draw enough so they decided to couple it with an odd medieval theme. All the statues of dinosaurs wear fantastical armor or a kind of generic court clothing. Further into the park the aesthetic turns to gears and a color-saturated steam punk setting. The statues are all over the place and a deeply strange fusion that is just too curious to begrudge. By the end of the day I wanted all dinosaurs to wear armor. Dinosaur Park costs quite a lot and only has one really solid roller-coaster, but it is worth a visit to see the strange conglomeration of dino-themed water park, amusement park, museum, theater, strip mall, and children’s center. Never did I feel quite so strangely at home and detached from the face of the Earth as at Dino Park. The over priced gift shops and restaurants shacked up with rickety roller coasters and nearly fluorescent children’s attractions are in the Midwest as much as Florida. It is just that in the Midwest they are not near as famous.

Changzhou’s second park is a personal favorite and a bit underrated. For a notably cheaper ticket you can make it into a theme park centered on a history you won’t find in the US – though the commercialization of it may feel familiar. Called Yancheng Park, it actually has a proper park with some interesting history just alongside some pretty cool rides, and you can read my larger two part story on it here and here. The third and last is CC Joyland – a regular old theme park – that I have not visited and cannot guide you through. A cynical side of me screams that these quiet places have to twist up ugly plastic shapes to make fun.

Yet, there is a soft and sincere side of Indianapolis and Chanzhou dwelling inside the regular parks and it can soften any cynic no matter how pretentious. Hongmei is Changzhou’s biggest and most known park, with a massive reconstructed pagoda right alongside a small lake. It has a wonderful little viewing pond where flowers gather and shine underneath the sun. I found a dead turtle there and took several pictures. Outside of the water and the temple Hongmei did not strike me as having much but I have been spoiled because almost every Chinese city has at least three very good parks. In fact the reconstructed pagoda at Hongmei’s center is one of the largest in the world and deserves its own due. On top of it you can see the grey haze of rapid industrialization settle on the beige, brown, white, and light reddish identical apartment complexes spread out into the endless horizon.

Another park called Xintiandi sits right near me and has no famous attraction to speak of. Though people don’t know it, to me it feels much more artfully constructed and definitively more modern. Xintiandi opens with a large black obelisk that touches the sky and has a meaning that I have not pieced together yet. Little pools of water in between the main walkway after the obelisk lead up to a large pond or small lake that reflects the newly built malls, offices, and apartments of the Wujin district. To the side there’s a wide grassy plain where people sit and play with families. I have seen grandpas flying kites with grandkids, grandmas gathering in multiple groups in different sections of the park to dance together, parents and children seeing talent shows, and runners getting their daily exercise in at Xintiandi. When I come back up from the large white slab that is the Golden Eagle mall to the south of Xintiandi I walk across a bridge with translucent hard glass planks. Little kids stare down at the lazily moving water. I have seen more than one set of wedding pictures taken on that bridge.

The black obelisk at the entrance of Xintiandi reminds me of the Veterans Park in Indianapolis. It is just a small stretch of green maybe two blocks wide in front of the ever large public library but it opens with a black obelisk thinner than at Xintiandi but lined with gold. In that park I have also seen wedding pictures. Children have tried to sell me school drive candy and sometimes I accepted and hopefully pushed them another dollar closer to a prize toy. I have seen middle aged people practice tai chi together and had one man tell me how it helped him beat his cancer. I do not know much about science but I’ll believe that quiet and passionate spirit can triumph it.

I have ran up the clean marble steps of the World War II memorial in Indianapolis and looked outward at the slight bunches of traffic accumulating. Laced underneath my own breathing is the gentle hum of engines gently whirring in stillness as they sit at lights. The way the white noise picks up into a managed roar as green replaces red sounds like bubbling rapids. I have never known living in anything but city and for me the hum of distant cars feels like river water constantly overturning and lapping up against itself. When I am stepping steadily through Xintiandi or even just walking past the dancing old ladies on the way to my grocery store the noise of constant motion dimmed by distance slides subtly underneath the noises in the foreground.

Maybe you look at me like I am trying to escape the serene hum of small cities. I have never made it a secret that I’d love to live in the West Coast where the sun always shines or Chicago the sights are endless. In college I skipped the Midwest without two thoughts and settled into the stunning marble of D.C. In China I studied in the unbelievably immense urban sprawl of Beijing and when I sought work I aimed for Nanjing – the glorious former southern capitol of a few notable Chinese dynasties. I ended up here in Changzhou, my Chinese Indianapolis.

But I am not too aggrieved and I am not trying so hard to escape. I said facetiously to a dear friend that Indianapolis had prepared me for urban mediocrity. It was facetious but it was not false. Indy prepared me by making me love the average as it appears in the friendliness of neighbors and the slick sound of cars coming and going. Changzhou does not carry the art and culture of Shanghai and Indianapolis does not carry the art and culture of Chicago, but there’s plenty that feels great in the average and plenty that feels average in the great. The people in average places will drop what they carry to help you. Average places can pause and slow pace because nothing in their identity seems pressing. In smaller cities, communities will hold you tight because for all that ‘standard’ doesn’t do it also doesn’t ask that much of you. In NYC, DC, Beijing, and Nanjing life has slapped me in the face with strangeness but in Changzhou and Indianapolis I’ve squinted and found near as much of it. In Changzhou people try to know me and I try to know them too. In Beijing I was another unfamiliar face.

Well hell, screw the East and the West I was born in the middle and I’ll probably end up interred in the quiet dirt there too. Some days I may want a more glamorous metropolis but where I live will never change where I was raised. When a big city swallows me up none of my hometown identity will die. The churning pearly white skylines of modern metropolises can’t scrape the small city simplicity off me so I might as well learn how to find the bright spots in the dimly lit cities I have come to call home.

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Reflections


I have never lived in a rainy city before, but now I am in a rainy province. So far it is mostly drizzly and each time I go out I am not much inconvenienced. It is deceptive, where if you disregard it the water really builds on your skin and then you are flooded.

I like to go out for a walk every day if I can because my apartment is all white plaster walls and white tile floors and it is a claustrophobic aesthetic that starts off empty and ends up dirty. There are art posters and all sorts of picture frames in my home though, because I had already known of China’s odd love of pale patterns. I’ve flecked it with color for a homier vibe.

Usually when I go out it’s not very far because for whatever complaints I have of it, my home has all my routines and my business inside of it. It is warm and has everything I need. That’s probably something worth mentioning too. When I go out on one of my evening strolls it is often to scavenge for a supplement to dinner, or some kind of thing I need for teaching or living, or both. During the weekend going out’s a bit more pointed. The school’s cafeteria closes down and there’s no work tomorrow so that’s when the long journeys into town for food, drink, and company happen.

Last routine weekday step-out I had bought a mop and a trash bin with a pop-up lid. Well, I think that was the last time I stepped out – actually reflecting on it the last time might have been when I went to KFC. I specifically wanted to order an intriguingly odd looking hamburger meal that came with what looked like a giant strawberry red pizza roll and some sort of hot drink. The pizza roll was actually a super sweet kind of jelly pie thing that tasted better than the burger. The burger itself had a layer of dried noodles on top of it and loads of sloppy applied sweet mayo. The hot drink was corn juice, which I guarantee tastes exactly the way you imagine it.

Anyways, the events blend. I can’t really remember the sequence, but there are a lot of small discrete motions that stick out from the continuous motion. The pity I had for the trash can I was buying sticks out like a wave in the humming sea of consistent motion. That trash bin had cost a surprising amount and I bought it explicitly as a used a toilet paper container. This was a premium trash can – I am telling you – and it must feel like it got a raw deal literally pocketing what my body wouldn’t! Its stainless steel exterior shines underneath the dim lightbulb in my bathroom right now and I still feel the pity I had for it the day of purchase. “Hey, sorry,” I’ve maybe even said aloud, “but you were the only thing with a lid, and honestly you are doing a swell job keeping the smell in.”

I am getting off track. In Changzhou it rains a lot and there a lot of reflective surfaces. This is probably my favorite thing about the city. The reflective tiles of the sidewalks are mostly that strange kind of grey with different tones and shades inside it, with some different colors patterned in here and there. All in between the grey there’re are thin lines of deep black tiles containing the smoothest reflections and in them I can see the glimpse of the grey and black Midwestern skyline designs of Chicago. When the rain really falls it is easy to get caught up in the city and its reflections. Sometimes when the night sky is really clear the outlines of the buildings become stark underneath the wide open. Then the rigid design of this rain slicked little city expands and if my eyes spiral inward, they are plain caught to it and beholden for a little while. Each upright slab sits equidistant from its neighboring building, and if the neighbors are a part of the same apartment complex then they’ll have the same facades too. The angles are equal and the balconies jut out in sequence like the arms of swimmers popping up from under drizzly rain curtains. For a while I was catching single swimmers out and watching their simple motions but with that kind of approach I was missing the way the whole show comes together.

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This last night I went out the sky was not too clear, I think, but even on the smoggy evenings all that’s up comes back down in reflections. The rain was going in the same light drizzle it has had for the last few weeks and all along the ground there was the slick veneer of water on smooth surfaces sticking face up and looking. What they saw is marked right there in the rain pooling on top of them and for some time I’d just stare at my feet stepping over puddles and catch a single heavy and stout piece of skyline quivering porous underneath me. After a while treading the same paths there were certain moments where I found that reflections convened with the images gazing into the watery mirror, like reality doubling up. It was probably a good number of patterned walks ago when I noticed how this long stretch of wide tile cut down the middle by three green reflecting pools ran up to a reflection that always catches me now. It comes along through this little back road a friend taught me to take to that is a bunch of passages that lead to a circular plaza where old ladies like to form up and do square or pair dances. The passage that leaks out to a main road goes on for a bit and about midway through its distance the flat, tall, and wide face of a white building with thin veins of multi-colored neon lights reaches out at first only in reflective rainwater pools. It pulls at my feet and as I follow it the long white thing slinks into a normal shape while the base of its reflection joins to reality and points straight up at the sky. The building and its mirror image both sit blinking multi-colored, probably wondering why I eyed them up top to base to base to top. If I was untoward to the tile and the concrete, I apologize.

On the main road all the reflections are still there and sometimes even clearer in they way they form buildings up into massive straight lines, all standing at attention in perfect rows that shoot to the sky and into the Earth. Wherever I go, KFC, Burger King, a restaurant, it is bright and warm and the servers somewhat know me. In each place I mostly want silence or to talk with a friend in English, but I’ll try to order and do the necessary interactions in Chinese. People will likely watch me eat and at this point I don’t even notice peering eyes much anymore. The days reflect each other like this. An experience at one nearby place reconstructs down from its top to its base to the base of another nearby place to that other place’s top. It is why it is so hard to pull the days apart and I stick to memorizing the things that send a brief ripple through the puddles over the steady fall of rain.

There’s no absence of those kind of ripples. Once I was deeply curious about the old ladies dancing in the plaza an how long they want on for, so I joined in on the whole duration. It was really long, maybe an hour and a half of aerobics set to Chinese “Cha-Cha Slide”-esque music. By the middle I was into it and by the end I was exhausted. “Are you tired?” asked an old man in Mandarin. “Very tired.” I replied back.

Another time maybe two or so weeks back I met a college age girl who spoke great English – or rather she met me. I had sat down at Burger King and she came over to me with such a genuine zeal I couldn’t let it go un-reflected, even though I wasn’t looking for a conversation. She had a very warm and low-lit buzz about her, like the café lighting of the Burger King (US brand fast food joints have nicer design in China). Apparently she had a foreign teacher at her university but had never found one roaming in the wild, feasting on its very own imported native fruits. She was in some kind of business management end of the textile industry and was thinking of going abroad so she plied me with fairly deep questions about how living away from home feels. I kind of liked that because it was unlike the average conversation where I’d say for the tenth time where I was from, what my work was, how much I was paid, and how long I had been here. In the end she got my WeChat (a poplar messaging app) and we sped off to separate places. I haven’t heard from her since, but that’s normal and it does not make me sad anymore. I don’t think it is just because I expect it, but because now that I have seen the first be the last so many times, I don’t think the lack of a sequence colors the one-time-things any worse.

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Then I’d go back home. Sometimes some drivers mulling about by their parked cars will stop me and talk for a while. They have some pretty fun banter and seem eager for me to find a girlfriend. Just this last time I stopped for a coke at a nearby convenience store and chatted with a middle aged couple who run the place. They have a black and white cat patterned so it has a thick mustache. I had met it before when it was a lot smaller, but it remembered me when I took my hood off and started playing with my hand like it had before. I spent a bit spinning my headphones around for it to paw at while I pet it, so of course the owners and I talked about cats and the pets I had back home. Then I waded back in through the crowd of parents looking to pick up kids and exchanged quick hellos with the gate guards.

Past the gate and in the courtyard there’s this massive, red, abstract star. When it rains water pools around its circular base and the star shines once up and once down at every angle. Then there’s a brief walk where the school buildings rise up to each side and things feel a bit more cluttered before everything falls to wide and open as the basketball courts come in on the right and the student cafeteria on the left. The basketball court’s a solid green surface that extends all the way to far outer wall of the school. Not too far off, there’s an apartment complex of similarly styled beige buildings with jutting strips. They stretch down and leak into the reflecting green surfaces of the basketball courts until the top of the reflections feel in reach and the summit of their tangible bodies feel out of touch.

Finally there’s the last few strides home. The dormitories are way in the back of the campus and they sharply cut off the wide open plain made by the expansive basketball courts. They are flat but for iron frames outside of windows where kids hang sheets and clothes. Two of them squeeze right up close to each other, maybe only fifteen feet apart, and fence off the teachers’ apartments where I live. Each building is about four or five stories and they make a thin mountain pass that the plains filter into – a dark little channel covered up top by a tin roof. Looming right behind them are the apartment complexes that reach up at least twenty floors, speckled on each level with intermittent light. Straight forward the road is gravelly and crooked, creating for imperfect reflections. The dorms and apartments lean into the water on the ground but rugged and rickety terrain turn their blocky bodies splotchy. As I near the pass the apartment complexes lean in closer, breathing over the neck of the dorms. The peaks of mountain ranges mark the instant end of the reflective plains as the darkness of the pass swallows me up and the pitter patter of rain drops clapping cold tin blend seamlessly with the hushed murmurs of students and the distant drone of cars. When I step out of the pass, the dorms circle up behind me and the humble hill of my apartment complex sits just beneath the twenty-something story apartment building and the speckled lights that it thrusts upward into the starless night sky.

It took me a while to realize it but much of the campus is designed to keep people out of the rain, with tin roofed corridors nearly always connection to overhangs and tunnels. There are corridors of wavy tin roofs that cover lanes leading to the area around my apartment – which has stone ping-pong tables, a parking area, and a small building for holding trash. I can rarely smell the garbage but it draws in all sorts of noise and excitement. In the nights the wild cats of the campus sustain themselves off this garbage and argue over it fiercely and in the mornings Chinese people also argue at least around it but for reasons I can’t discern. When I hear the cats I laugh, but when I hear the heated Mandarin something in me gets a bit angry too and I am not sure why.

Crossing past the garbage there are parked scooters and cars lined up neatly before the wall of the campus. At first it startled me to see security cameras and sharp glass shards lining the top of the wall near our apartments. Now I don’t even catch their reflections. I suppose that’s the sign of a good security measure – present to outsiders and subtle to insiders. It is interesting though,, that once I get close enough to see those glass shards I can also almost glimpse into that high-rise community sitting right behind me and looking straight over.

When I step into the narrow space that leads up to the door I can hear the sound of rain hitting tin now overwhelming everything. For a bit I listen for the scraping sound of dirt falling off my shoes and onto my red, improper English adorned doormat. Opening the door, the fluorescent lights are already bounding out off of white surfaces to greet me. Inside the blank sea swallows up everything and I am almost sleepy underneath the fluorescent lighting, the warm air, and the vibrating hum of the heater producing it.

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~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

No More Lifeless Horror


[Spoiler alert: this post reveals the ending of Oculus and The Shining – though you really should have seen that one by now]

The last time everyone in my immediate family was in town we all sat down to watch a horror movie. My family loves a good scary movie. We live in an old wooden Victorian home that seeps at the seams with the creaks and rustles that build tension in ghost stories. Fear has a fun and almost playful dimension to it in a good movie. But sometimes horror gets too hung up on fear and forgets itself. Horror movies often ignore the hallmark of a good story in favor of some cheap thrills. So many mediocre horror films butcher their own themes to manufacture fear and end up lifeless because of it.

Trying to think up a good horror film to watch, I recommended Oculus. It is a very well put together film with solid acting and camera work, but it was ultimately mediocre. “It has a pretty bad ending.” I’d say, but it was more than that. It was a potentially great movie that chose to be mediocre.

In the shiny new horror title Oculus, a pretty standard scary movie plays out with an interesting psychological twist. Two siblings pit themselves against a satanic mirror that essentially killed their parents. The sister leads the charge and eventually recruits the reluctant brother who mostly wants to move on. The novelty of the movie comes from the way the mirror twists the reality around the siblings until they have to find cues and create signs of sanity to avoid getting destroyed by it. Bone piercing dread slips into what would otherwise be another dull battle with demonic forces. It isn’t a perfect movie, with some twists and reality bending moments feeling fairly predictable and some standard horror overacting.

The two siblings standing next to the possessed mirror. Photo courtesy of a review of Oculus from the film focused blog The Movie Guys.  https://jordanandeddie.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/halloween-film-review-oculus-2013/
The two siblings standing next to the possessed mirror. Photo courtesy of a review of Oculus from the film focused blog The Movie Guys.

However its biggest failure is not in cinematography or acting, but the mismanaging of a great theme. Like any good scary movie protagonists, the hubris of the two siblings lead them into trouble. They assume they can handle the mirror. Obviously they can’t. The movie plays out with perfect pace and little problem as the mirror brings back the trauma it inflicted on their childhood. In the final moments Oculus shatters its own momentum and dismantles motifs just to keep the audience on edge.

In the last thirty minutes of the movie the siblings uncover repressed memories of the reality behind the death of their parents. Possessed by the mirror, their father kills their mother and turns on them. With almost no chance of survival and the end nearing the kids cower near the mirror. In one tiny act of defiance the dad turns the gun to himself – against the will of the mirror – and shoots. His body smacks the corner of the mirror and gives it the only blemish it ever had in its centuries long history.

What builds is a human theme that a sense of love creates reality; that this familial, human love is the only thing that could fight back against an inhuman, monstrous force. Even if it is just a scratch, it is the only injury on an otherwise indomitable force of dread. This theme gives real meat to an otherwise just well executed fear fest. In the end love renews sanity and brings clarity in madness. The message is incredibly hokey, maybe even gauche, but simultaneously timeless and sympathetic.

When the ending arrives and Oculus promptly picks up the theme like a prized vase it just made and smashes it against the wall to draw some shock from the viewer. The mirror lures the brother into murdering the sister by distorting reality so he can’t see where she’s standing. He ends up carted off to an insane asylum screaming about how the mirror did it, and it goes back on auction presumably to claim another victim. Where was the love the film painstakingly built up to? Where did the lucidity of family go? The end of the film drowned it out after explicitly telling the audience that it was the only thing that could not be drowned out. The end of the film weakened it as a form of resistance after explicitly showing it as the only thing that could fight back against the mirror.

Out of fear that the audience won’t feel afraid, Oculus contrives an awful ending that betrays its own themes in the ultimate low-risk horror move of killing off all but one lone, knowing character to clear way for a sequel. This is what’s truly gauche about horror. This is the turn off. Nothing horrifies mediocre horror more than sincerity to a theme. Without a theme any story becomes directionless and hollow. Unfortunately horror movies often ignore themes and motifs to pound fear into the viewer, but this just cheapens the genre to what many people complain it is now: lifeless, heartless, corporate creations with rehashed stories.

Horror should hit home. Horror should stick with you in good endings and bad for the way that it drives at a point – just like any other type of story. It takes the courage to stick to a theme and deliver on it to actually hit home. Instead, horror chickens out. It gets scared of commitment and the cold feet scary movies have to their own themes turn anything memorable in them to something immature and fleeting. The problem does not end with Oculus. The dilemma extends to movies like Sinister – that also forces a bad ending on the audience likely to pave the way for its recently announced sequel – and so many others that have a glimmer of greatness and settle for the alright.

Jack's insanity memorialized. Taken from this blog post./a=href>
Jack’s insanity memorialized. Taken from this blog post.

Thematically well made horror is not an impossible dream either and The Shining shows this by endlessly building on themes of interior versus exterior and pure delusion. The Shining ends with the father of the family, Jack, alone and frozen in a maze, a smile plastered on his face. Overlook Hotel seems fine on the outside, but it is a malevolent place trapped in a terrible time. Engulfed by the hotel, Jack takes on its character so completely that his smiling façade belies a twisted interior, all of which is frozen in place. The end of the movie completes Jack’s delusion by directly putting him inside an old, black and white photo of the bar he saw in his insanity. The themes of façade versus interior and delusion to even the time period play out in simultaneous perfection at the end of The Shining. If The Shining were made with an ending like Oculus’s Jack would butcher his family and snap out of it as the cops wheeled him away. It would feel cheap and it would lead to a sequel that would feel even cheaper.

Modern horror with a completely bad ending can also capitalize on themes to create a more memorable experience. Let the Right One In – an austere vampire flick – thrives off of soul-sucking loneliness that every frame of the cold, empty Scandinavian scenery compliments. The trials of a lonely boy with an ever working mother provide the basis of a sense of solitude that does not end until the curtain call. Let the Right One In paints a dreadful, ageless child vampire that hides behind an aging and dying thrall. With every moment the white as snow vampire girl further seduces the lonely boy. Her warmth to him radiates amidst his cruel classmates, absent mother, and the snowy Swedish landscape all around. The contrast of the vampire’s simple warmth to the boy’s cold life stirred up my stomach for a week. Through themes Let the Right One In creates a vampire that is simultaneously frigid beyond belief and the warmest thing in a boy’s whole world. I slept fine after the movie’s end, but I never forgot it. Stills of the film stick to the lining of my subconscious like paintings in a museum. The tremendous use of solitude had captured me.

The lonely boy sits bundled and guarded next to the vampire, who is warm even in the cold. Taken from the film's trailer.
The lonely boy sits bundled and guarded next to the vampire, who is warm even in the cold. Taken from the film’s trailer.

Films like The Shining and Let the Right One In make me want to return in earnest to horror. Yet each time I want to embrace the genre it rejects the sincerity of its own messages and motifs so suddenly and purposelessly that I have to deny the genre. I have to refuse it for something bolder. I have to find genres that have the guts and gore to say something real at the cost of pulling back on some emotional punches.

I am not calling for the end of all modern scary movies. I really want to love horror. Nor am I lobbying that all horror must be fine art. Slashers can deliver on themes too, and I don’t want to live in a world without them. Rather, I want to rally against what makes horror lifeless: the way it murders its own messages, motifs, and themes.