Sunday, June 25, 2017

Telling The Story

I supervised Bernice before I befriended her.

I worked full-time for my summer program, hiring and managing people, overseeing all manner of details. Bernice was a registered nurse who only worked the summers for us, and had settled into a comfortable annual gig of coming in on weekday afternoons to administer medications and tend to bumps and bruises. That first summer we worked together at UC Santa Cruz, I have to assume that she saw me as little more than another in a line of young people, plugged into a position of authority, who would hopefully stay out of her way. She was nearly fifty years my senior.

The second year, we established a rapport. I fell into a routine of asking her what she was making for dinner that night, and she would regale me with tales of lasagnas and meat loafs and roasted vegetables, any one of which sounded far better than the dining hall fare that awaited me on campus.

Summer programs tend to see their share of turnover. By our third summer, I was one of the few familiar faces to Bernice. The one she asked to hold the arm of as she descended a steep hill, and the one she defaulted to asking to carry boxes for her as she set up her office. I probably should have delegated such responsibilities, for example, to the assistants hired specifically to work with her. But there was something I appreciated about being the one she called on. About having earned her trust. Little doubt, about the ways in which helping her reminded me of how I was just getting old enough to meaningful help my grandmother when she started lose herself to dementia, and in those years before I moved away and then she passed on.

Thus, it was with some reservations when I let Bernice know it would be my last summer.

She told me that she thought she would be done, too.

In the final days of that summer, we got to talking about what I would be doing that summer, and it only then occurred to me how little I had revealed about myself beyond work, and beyond satisfying an old woman’s curiosity about my relationship status and upbringing. I told her that I meant to move across the country and write.

And she told me she had a story.

The next day, Bernice presented me with “The Story.” A five-page manuscript, written long hand in big, swooping, ballpoint script on paper from a legal pad. I sat down and read it in front of her, a reversal of roles from my own childhood years when I remember pleading that my grandmother read my stories in front of me so I could see her reactions.

It wasn’t great. Grammatically poor and largely incoherent, making winks and nods and asides without enough context to follow more than half of them. It was only in the late stages that I connected enough dots to realize she was telling the story of Jesus’s birth.

She folded her hands over stomach and reclined in her chair, looking very pleased with herself after I had finished. “I asked two obstetricians in the area to get all my facts straight about what it would have been like then,” she said.

I set aside my workshop-hardened instinct toward constructive criticism. “It’s wonderful.”

My last night on campus we went to dinner, joking that it was it was a dinner date. She picked me up her Oldsmobile with the cassette deck, handicapped parking tag on the dash and we ate good Italian food.

After dinner, she drove back toward campus, then looked at me with a sly grin. “Do you want to see my house?”

In truth, I was curious. But I also knew that it was getting late, and I was, in all likelihood already keeping her up. Besides that, I still had to pack before my flight the next day, and I had tentatively committed to meeting up with some other staff members to watch a movie.

More than all of that, though, I recognized that we had had a nice time together, and the night was more likely to go downhill than to get any better from there.

“I should probably be getting back,” I said.

She pulled into the traffic circle at Crown College--a space so often full of activity when we had had children under our care, now silent and still.

Bernice pulled to a stop, put the car in park, and put a hand on my wrist. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your story.”

As we hugged, I thought it was an odd phrasing. Sure, I thought of so many moments in life in terms of stories, but I supposed that was something older folks, and people who hadn’t devoted their lives to literature, might outgrow to recognize this tangled web of experiences and acquaintances and dinners and goodbyes not as something so contrived or well-defined as a story, but as a life. But then, I suppose she had had far more a life to base her assessment on.

I walked away from the car and Bernice drove away. As she did, I knew there was every chance I’d never see her again. That whatever story we shared had come to a close.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On Assumed Intention

I remember reading an argument against multivitamins. The cornerstone of said argument was that there was no credible evidence that a multivitamin regimen increased anyone’s lifespan.

My response, as an inconsistent multivitamin taker, was to question why longevity of life was the metric in consideration for that particular conversation.

Call it logic. Call it neuroses. I tend to take multivitamins when I’m traveling a) because I typically have less control of my food intake and am less confident I’ll ingest proper quantities of fruits and vegetables, b) because I’m often running on less sleep than usual and c) because I’m paranoid about being in contact with more potential sources of illness—people sneezing next to me on a plane, or handling a gas pump multiple times a day without always having the chance to wash my hands soon after.

As you might very reasonably extrapolate, I’m a bit of a germ-a-phobe, and that is the primary driver behind my vitamin intake. While I guess there’s some logic to the theory that preventing sickness prolongs life, I don’t take multivitamins to prevent cancer or car accidents or old age and the myriad risk factors for an inevitable demise. I take them to stave, generally, healthy.

Maybe there’s more research and literature to further condemn multivitamins, even on the grounds for which I use them--I haven’t pursued research in the field. But for me, this simple, flawed argument pointed to a larger issue of assumed intention.

Another example: I have a friend who is a devout gym rat and who is adamant about not getting a tattoo. His reasoning is that people get tattoos in order to make their bodies look cooler, and that getting a tattoo is an easy way of doing so, because you exchange money for your new look. He suggests that the look he develops in the gym is far cooler because it’s earned rather than bought.

I’ve tried to argue the point. I’ve talked about how people use tattoos to brand themselves with important words or images. Reminders to themselves. Representations to the world. I’ve explained The Semi-Colon Project. I’ve shared CM Punk’s philosophy that he feels badly for anyone without tattoos, because it demonstrates that they don’t have as strongly held beliefs as him. He’ll grant me individual cases, but holds his ground on the over-arching argument.

As children, we learn that impact matters more than intention. That if two children are talking and one makes a joke that hurts the other’s feelings, it’s a problem, and despite not meaning to cause any harm, harm has been done. We teach responsibility. The same goes for play fighting that leads to injury, or when playing keep-away with someone’s basketball is read not as play, but as bullying behavior.

The matter of intention vs. impact grows more complicated as adults. We can assume that we know what something means--that multivitamin users want to prolong their lives; that people with tattoos just want to look cooler. Most of these assumptions are harmless, if potentially misguided and annoying. But then let’s look at another case study—WWE developmental talent Zahra Schreiber, who had, in her past, posted images of swastikas to her social media accounts. The assumed intention, and the purported reason Schreiber was released from her contract, is that she came across as prejudiced and hateful. By Schreiber’s own account, she meant to reclaim the symbol and represent not the Nazi-related connotations the symbol has carried in Western society since the 1930s, but rather the good fortune and well being the symbol originally represented. These claims generally fell on deaf ears.

Schreiber’s argument for the Swastika may not be so sympathetic to a general audience. Compare it to the use of the Confederate flag by those who profess it to represent southern pride and history. What are the real intentions there? What is the real impact? What does southern pride really mean?

These are complicated questions which I’m hardly scraping the surface of. I’m inclined to assume the best of people—an impulse reinforced by years of working with children, followed by years of teaching college students. People with strong principles--principles that were, just the same, only then taking shape. I looked at it as my role not to proselytize but challenge, complicate, and add nuance. To generally cultivate critical thinking about what they were really putting out into the world.

I suppose there ought to be no less weight attached to how we understand others. With an eye toward empathy. An instinct toward asking questions over casting condemnations. And, yes, deciding what points are worth not compromising on.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Sun Rises

Fall term of my second year at my MFA program, I was assigned to teach two sections of Introduction to Fiction. It was a great opportunity to break out of the mold of teaching first-year comp, select my own texts, and refine my thinking about both the crafting of literature and the pedagogy surrounding it.

The two sections I was assigned to teach were Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

I had my teacherly concerns related students who might sleep through alarms and not come to class, or, little better, make it to the classroom, but show up tired, sluggish, and disengaged.

I had my personal concerns, all the more marked. I’ve never been a morning person, and throughout my own undergrad and first round of grad school, had never had a class earlier than 9:20 a.m. Even my office jobs generally hadn’t called on me to arrive earlier than 8:30 a.m., and there was an unspoken understanding that 8:30 to 9 in the morning was more or less a grace period. I’d get up between 7 and 7:30, eat breakfast, shower, and drive into work within the acceptable parameters of office culture.

But this teaching gig would have me in front of a classroom and lecturing at 8. When I checked the Corvallis bus schedule, I discovered that the earliest stop at the bus outside my apartment complex rolled in after 7:30, arriving at campus between 7:40 and 7:45 if the bus were on time. The Corvallis bus system wasn’t bad—I’d learned to trust it within a ten-to-fifteen minute span, but if the bus did arrive fifteen minutes late at that morning hour, then I wouldn’t get from my campus stop to the classroom on time; and if it were running late, I wouldn’t have time enough to make the two-and-a-half-mile walk to campus by 8:00.

I did the math and strategized. I arrived at the conclusion that I would need to walk to campus. And that in order to have breakfast and shower and not be in a rush every step of the way, I really needed to be out of bed by 6 a.m.

6 a.m. The wake up hearkened back to high school, when I needed to be at the bus stop by 7:15, and thus got up around 6:30. Only 6 was even earlier. I had had individual days of work, school, and travel, when I needed to be up at all sorts of hours, but never for more than a couple days at a stretch. I had had on-call situations that saw phone calls coming my way at all hours of the night and morning. But they were always temporary, always under two months.

I’m not writing all of this to make you feel sympathy for me--there are plenty of people who have had to get up this early--or earlier--for longer periods of their lives. People with children to tend to. People for who found the wee hours the only time they could scrape together to work out or write or pursue other passions. People who had harder work to do than teaching college students a subject that they loved.

I’m offering this background, instead, to drive home how I felt at the news of this early morning teaching assignment and the thought process I went through as it became a reality.

In those early weeks (truth be told, most of the term) I was always running late. Never late to arrive in the classroom, but often scrambling through the last stages of getting ready at home, or not so much walking as jogging for portions of the journey to school. But then there came a morning when I got up with my alarm, didn’t dawdle over my breakfast reading, and got out the door on time and in line with the schedule I had set for myself and so rarely quite lived up to.

I walked down Witham Hill. To the east, the sky was streaked in pink and orange. The clouds had taken on blue undertones as the sky just started lighten.

I’ve always liked sunsets. I like the colors. I like the metaphorical idea of something beautiful at the end of the day, just as night begins to set in. I like their accessibility—that I’ve gotten to see sunsets on drives and walks home at the end of the day, or after dinner, before I’m supposed to meet up with friends or before a show I want to watch comes on TV. Even so, I noticed as I grew older that I was watching fewer sunsets. Too tied up with my job and with work I had imposed on myself. Half the time, I didn’t even notice the sun had gone down until I looked out a window, or were otherwise roused from whatever distractions life threw my way. When I started dating Heather and after our first date included watching the sunset over a San Diego beach, I made a conscious vow to myself to pay more attention. Not to let myself miss this point in the day.

I got better about it. But still not great.

But there I was, a forty-minute-ish walk I had no way around. A class to teach. Sometimes I listened to podcasts along the way. Some times music.

That day, it was music.

REM, to be precise, “Me In Honey” to put an even finer point on it. I listened to that swell of chords and that wordless moan of guest vocalist Kate Pierson. And I watched the sunrise.

I still ran late on others, and sometimes I went so fast that I was only implicitly aware of the sky growing lighter without consciously recognizing the sunrise.

But those mornings when I did see it were better. Sweeter. Those mornings, more than any of the others, I recognized that a new day really had begun.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

To Magazine Editors

For those not invested in the business of literary journals, please forgive the momentary departure from the more typical personal essay format of this blog. I assure you, I’ll be back to more regular programming in my next post.

Think of this as an open letter/conversation starter/short rant. I’d like to preface it all with a note that I don’t intend this post as passive-aggressive, but rather as edifying for editors (as well as submitters). Rest assured, this post is not meant to target anyone in particular. The complaints, implicit or explicit, are based not in any singular, but rather multiple experiences. I’ve opted not to name any specific, real-life names, good or bad, as a professional courtesy, and because I know there’s always the possibility I happened to catch an editor on a bad day and run into an aberration rather than a habitual practice.

Another note--I can sympathize with the role of the editor. While I've never been the shot-caller at a literary journal, I was the managing editor of one for a year, and have served as a contributing editor for another over a year now.

I’ve submitted to literary journals a lot over the last couple years and I’ve had the honor to have work accepted by a range of venues--a few fairly well-known, well-established journals; some fledgling online-only ones. I tend to tier off my work and submit to publications that seem appropriate for how I evaluate each individual piece. I know that strategy isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked for me and the volume and types of work I’ve been writing.

When it comes to whom to submit to and whom to publish with, most of the onus is on the writer to do her/his homework about what she/he is getting into. For example, I have had some work published online in a format that I did not find very aesthetically pleasing. The responsibility for that result is at least equally, and probably more so on me than any editor, because I looked at previous publications and accepted the journal’s aesthetic (or rolled the dice and trusted my work to an inaugural issue).

I do, however, feel compelled to pose this humble list of six (in no way exhaustive) best practices for editors of literary journals:

1) Promote the work. We live in an era in which social media has made a lot of promotion literally free of charge. I get that time constraints and social media savvy vary, but a minimum of posting to Facebook or Twitter and sending a message to let an email list know that a new issue has gone live seems fair.

Options for going above and beyond--the kinds of things that make a writer really appreciate and feel appreciated by an editor--include: making individual social media posts related to the individual piece by an author; re-tweeting an author’s other work that has no direct connection to the journal to support the author on the whole; offering to post an interview with the author on your website; inviting the author to do a reading. Not all of these options are reasonable or realistic to expect of every journal, but trust me when I say that authors do remember when they happen, and the journals that go that extra miles are the first ones that I’ll throw subscription dollars to, refer my friends to, or help to promote the later issues of that I’m not directly associated with.

2) Let the author see proofs before a piece goes live. It’s my finding that old school, primarily print magazines tend to be better about this, probably because there’s no easy way to retroactively fix a printed magazine. Just the same, giving authors a look--with a tight deadline--can spare headaches and embarrassment later. As the author, it was my responsibility to proofread my work before I sent it in (and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been guilty of not doing so carefully enough on occasion), but if there are errors related to formatting, or line-level edits by the editor, or the editor opting to use a different name than the one the author submitted under (if I submit as “Michael Chin” please don’t make the choice to us a “Mike Chin” by-line instead), that’s on the journal. I get that giving writers rubber-stamp privileges can prolong the process, but I think a tight deadline (especially for online publications) along the lines of forty-eight hours to review the draft before it goes live is fair to both sides.

3) Be honest about the timeline for publication and keep writers posted. Here’s the thing--if you have no idea about when you’re going to publish my work, that’s actually fine with me. The trouble comes in when an editor:

a) offers a specific publication date,
b) doesn’t live up to it, and
c) lets significant time pass without any communication.

I don’t think I’m alone among writers who compulsively check a website if we have reason to believe our work is about to go live. Delays will happen, and if an issue comes out a few days--even a week or two--late, that’s understandable, and a part of life. I remember, however, meeting an editor at AWP, thanking him for accepting my work, and then being told it should be out “any day now.” It took over three months for it to actually happen, with absolutely no communication in the interim. I completely understand that not everyone can be as timely or as on top of email as they (or apparently I) would like, but it’s a great show of respect to the writer for an editor to be as open and honest as possible to the extent that they know timelines.

4) Contact the author first, then publish. Maybe I’m mistaken, but from personal experience and from my sphere, most writers submit most pieces simultaneously, unless they’ve submitted somewhere that explicitly disallows it. If an editor is excited enough about a piece to want to publish it, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for an editor to contact a writer to let them know they’re accepting a piece before publishing it. I have had multiple instances of receiving an acceptance email that included a link to my piece, already live on the journal’s website. As a professional courtesy, I’m very principled about withdrawing simultaneous submissions the same day I get an acceptance, or as soon as possible if I’m traveling. While I doubt most editors are looking this closely into it, I do feel it looks poorly to withdraw a work after its already been published somewhere else. Besides that, it sends a message to me the journal that published without even waiting for the writer to agree to any terms doesn’t really have its act together in terms of having terms, and, in a sense, views the work as simultaneously good and disposable, to cavalierly throw it up on a website before notifying the author.

5) Send rejections. This is a strange one, and I’d actually be very interested in hearing counter-arguments from those with more wisdom than me. I struggle to understand why it’s too onerous for some journals to send a form rejection if you’re not accepting work. Mind you, I appreciate those that are at least forthcoming that that’s their practice. Moreover, I completely understand not sending personalized feedback to the overwhelming majority of submissions--that’s time consuming and, frankly, sometimes the author’s work might not deserve it. But a form rejection? If The New Yorker and Tin House have time to send them, I struggle to understand why anyone else can’t.

6) Don’t put weird provisos at the end of submission guidelines. Maybe this is just me, and this just grinds my gears because I submit a lot. But if you’re going to have an unusual, restrictive guideline such as a demographic restriction in terms of who can submit to a particular issue, or require an unusually large reading fee, that information really ought to be foregrounded. Again, maybe just my personal axe to grind, but there’s a special place in literary hell reserved for journals that tag onto the end of lengthy guidelines that, oh yeah, they don’t accept simultaneous submissions.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Karate Kid

I grew up on The Karate Kid. On Daniel LaRusso as a loveable underdog. On Johnny Lawrence as a bully. As the sensai as a bigger bully. As Mr. Miyagi as a the ultimate mentor figure. I liked the sequels well enough, too, but the original was the one that I watched over and over and over again, internalizing its lessons, memorizing its dialogue, imitating its crane kick (which, if done right, no can defense).

Growing older problematized this film to an extent. I recognized Daniel as whiny, immature, and less of a passive victim than a conscious instigator in a number of the situations in which the Cobra Kai bullies ended up pummeling him. Just the same, a combination of perfectly reasonable storytelling (particularly for movie geared toward children in the 1980s) and nostalgia shored up its spot as, at the very least, a sentimental favorite that survived into other periods of my life.

When I heard that there would be a remake of The Karate Kid, my initial reaction was positive. I romantically considered the possibilities of a new generation of young people getting exposed to this story, and how whatever new production bells and whistles, and fresh-faced young actor were attached to the Daniel role might make it more palatable to that next generation of fans.

I learned of Jackie Chan taking on the role of Mr. Miyagi. As much as it stung to imagine a Miyagi not portrayed by Pat Morita, Chan’s real-life and action movie credentials as a martial artist made him a perfectly sensible fit. I could get behind that. Then I learned of Jaden Smith stepping into the Daniel role.

I didn’t love the choice. Child actors who are the sons and daughters of established movie stars always provoke a degree of skepticism for me, and the only film I’d seen Jaden in was The Pursuit of Happyness which I adored begrudgingly—won over by all of its sentimentality in spite of myself because I was so conscious the film’s most saccharine moments were also its most manufactured—a plain as day architecture of a feel-good, overcoming the odds story, albeit one based on reality.

I didn’t have a problem with Jaden Smith, but I did see him as carrying a log of Hollywood baggage, that would necessitate this film ticking off the checkboxes of a 2010-ish family underdog story.

I only saw the new iteration of The Karate Kid once, and in the theater, so forgive me for not having the sharpest memory of its story or all of the differences and similarities between incarnations. What I remember most, though, had far less to do with what happened on the screen than what happened in the theater.

Yes, I remember my friend who had never seen the original Karate Kid commenting that this movie wasn’t very good, and my desperation to explain that no, really, the original is so much better.

Even more so, though, I remember the reaction of the audience.

They applauded.

In the year 2010, a packed movie theater audience clapped their hands for the cinematic experience they had just undergone.

Some of that—nay, a lot of that—surely has to do with the high volume of children in the theater, who have just learned the concept of applauding, who haven’t learned that it isn’t the social norm to cheer in an actual movie theater, and who weren’t self-conscious enough to stop themselves for expressing their delight at this film. But I would argue there was more to it than that.

In 2010, I lived in Baltimore. And all the more so than watching any old great underdog story, these kids were a black kid beat the odds, learn kung fu, and win something. And that’s important.

Intellectuals and critics discuss the value of and issues of casting with an eye toward diversity. One of the truest values there is that a theater full of kids could much more readily see themselves represented in a black Karate Kid, and there’s something beautiful about that.

The new Karate Kid earned a middling-to-positive reception from critics, and was a big enough success at the box office that it justified a sequel for itself (in production as of the time I’m writing). All of that business aside, the most rewarding aspect of the remake for me was the conversations I heard after the applause had died down, as the latter stages of the credits rolled, and as the theater began to empty out. I heard a boy insistent that he wanted to take karate lessons. I heard a mother telling him it would take a lot of hard work.

The boy gave her a steady, straight-faced nod. “I know.”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

New York City

This post is written in the format of sharing thirty memories/thoughts/stories, each in thirty words or fewer. The focus is on my relationship with New York City.

The long drive My family made pilgrimages to New York three times each year—Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Easter weekend to stay with my father’s parents in Queens.

The alphabet game My sister and I tried to find every letter of the alphabet, in order, on road signs and license plates along the drive. Sometimes collaboratively. More often in competition.

The yellow bucket I grew prone to car sickness. We repurposed a yellow canister that had originally held children’s blocks as my puke bucket.

The tri-tone When we got within range of the City, Dad turned on talk news. I hear the station’s signature tri-tone sound. I still associate that sound with car sickness and boredom.

Chinese people For years, I thought the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers were Chinese people because our visits revolved around my grandparents’ apartment and Chinatown.

Non-Chinese people My Grandma Jean joined the drive once a year to meet an old friend. They saw Broadway shows and drank--my first hint at a non-Chinese part of New York.

Seating arrangements Grandma Jean joined in a Chinese dinner once. I wanted to sit next to her; she insisted that I should want to sit next to the grandparents we were visiting.

Spinning When I was little, my grandfather greeted my sister and I each with a hug and a spin through the air our legs dangling to either side of his potbelly.

Feast My grandmother cooked feasts of beef and spare ribs and broccoli and mushrooms and lobster to devour upon our arrival.

Lobster tales Before dinner, my grandmother kept the lobster alive in the fridge, crawling around produce and milk and eggs and beer.

Dogs My grandparents kept two dogs--their own, Ling-Ling, and my uncle’s, Ginger, the latter a Doberman pinscher I felt certain would maul me if given the opportunity.

Other visitors My uncle ran a pharmacy in the neighborhood. He and his wife stopped by for a later dinner. My uncle and my father traded barbs that rarely sounded good natured.

Museums Once each visit, we started visiting a museum--the Metropolitan Museum of Art or American History Museum. Growing up, I preferred the dinosaurs of the latter.

Buttons My father neither wanted to pay for museum admission, nor look stingy eschewing the suggested donation. We scanned sidewalks for blocks, looking for that day’s colored button to get in.

Musical artifacts A teenager, I grew bored of museums, and lingered on a music exhibit because I thought it would give me fodder to talk with the singer I liked at school.

Another girl At summer camp, I developed an intense crush on a girl from Queens, and spent whole trips hoping to catch sight of her on the street.

Return Summer after freshman year at college, I went to New York with Dad shortly after Mom left him. He meant to keep the break from his mother, but didn’t.

Conference I attended an intercollegiate conference against going to war in Iraq. We slept in the pews of a church our first night, a stranger’s living room in Harlem the second.

Reunion My first fall with a car, I drove to New York to meet up with two childhood friends. One of those nights, I saw Times Square for the first time.

Spring Break A girlfriend and I bused to the City for Spring Break. I was new to drinking and new to bars and ordered a twenty dollar rum and coke.

Last trip Just after college graduation, I made my last drive to New York with Dad. I started to recognize how weird all of those childhood trips were.

Recuperating After a bad break up, I went to New York to stay with a college buddy. I chatted up a young Manhattanite I thought might take me home. She didn’t.

A Cappella I started The A Cappella Blog, and started an annual tradition of traveling to New York to see the college and high school International Finals.

Pie After my first ICCA Finals, my best friend, my girlfriend and I wandered Manhattan with aims on sating a hunger for pie.

Central Park I was supposed to meet my friends in Central Park one year. It took forever to connect with them. But spring had just sprung and the Park was beautiful.

Happy Birthday The year Annie came with us, her birthday fell on the same night as college finals. We got the Buffalo Chips to serenade her with “Happy Birthday.”

White Castle In a drunken stupor, we once walked over two miles to reach a White Castle. It was glorious.

Early morning flight home We stayed at the LaGuardia Hotel. Got in at three in the morning. Had to be out the door by five. I found I was too old for all-nighters.

’Melo I was in Manhattan on business the night Carmelo Anthony debuted at Madison Square Garden. The receipt I turned in for reimbursement was for an eight dollar concession stand hotdog.

Taylor Swift Full disclosure, the first track from 1989, "Welcome to New York," first inspired this post. I’m not ashamed. Nor proud.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Wrestling Show Reading

Most places I go, I read.

I’m notorious for sitting on a weight bench and reading at two-minute intervals between sets. I read in restaurants when I’m out to eat alone. I read at bus stops (and would read on the bus, too, if I weren’t prone to motion sickness).

And, yes, I’ve read at professional wrestling shows.

There was a period from 2008 to 2013 when I attended my share of pro wrestling shows on my own, because I was traveling, or for lack of any interested parties to go with me; it was also as a bit of a statement of independence--that if I wanted to go to a show, I wouldn’t let the absence of company keep me from something I'd enjoy. It started with a couple shows in Baltimore. It spread to shows in California, when I made a short-lived tradition out of following WWE’s annual west coast swing along my California vacation at the end of CTY summers.

And then there was the King of Trios.

Prior to fall of 2012, the only wrestling shows I had attended were put on by WWE, WCW, or TNA—the three biggest US-based national wrestling promotions of the last twenty years. I would venture that most wrestling fans don’t make it past these three, and, in fact, that few have made it past WWE or WCW. These brands each have (or, in WCW’s case, had) national television deals and conducted tours that took their show across the US and even abroad. They were home to all of the household names--the Hulk Hogans, Steve Austins, Rocks, Ric Flairs, and Randy Savages of the world, and all of the guys who were a step down from that legendary status but that people remember from childhood fanship had stopovers there--acts like The Big Boss Man, Ricky Steamboat, and Tatanka.

Guys who work the independent wrestling scene may be on their way up to a national promotion, or they may be riding a wave of fame after having performed at that level. Then there are a bevy of performers who never have and never will make it past regional stardom, but nonetheless ply their trade long and successfully enough to make a living at pro wrestling.

Chikara is one such indie. It’s owned by Mike Quackenbush, and operates primarily out of the northeast and Mid-Atlantic, run in conjunction with Quackenbush’s wrestling school. Quackenbush himself is a mainstay on the independent scene who has crossed paths with his share of big names but never ended up with one of the aforementioned major promotions. (Sidebar: Quackenbush also happens to be an alum of CTY’s writing program).

Most years, they hold King of Trios, a three-day, single elimination tournament in which teams of three wrestlers go head to head, typically featuring a mix of Chikara mainstays, indie talent from other parts of the world, and big names of yesteryear reunited with old comrades. It’s about equal parts wrestling event and festival, featuring three solid shows, yes, but also pre- and post-show meet and greets in which wrestlers will shake hands with fans, pose for pictures, and sign autographs (often, but not always, for a nominal fee).

I took off work to drive two hours north to Easton, Pennsylvania for the show. The first night, I met Tatanka and Tommy Dreamer, then took my seat on one of the steel folding chairs set up on the high school gym floor, and observed three hours of alarmingly good in-ring performances. I was hooked.

But not hooked enough to leave my book at the hotel room.

One of the things you come to notice attending shows alone is all of the dead time. These are the moments when you’d ordinarily talk with your friends, speculating about what will happen at the show, or letting the conversation wander far outside the venue and the world of wrestling.

Alone, you eat your hot dog a little faster for lack of conversation to keep up with. You feel the weight of every passing minute of other people talking, and of looking at an empty ring.

So I started bringing along books.

Books to keep me occupied and entertained. Books to be more productive during otherwise unused times.

For King of Trios weekend, I read Philip Roth’s I Married A Communist, the second in his unofficially named “American trilogy,” which depicts a radio star ruined by allegations of being a communist during the McCarrthy era. It’s a book that met mixed reviews critically, but that I was enjoying as my work skewed more realist and I began to embrace Roth as a profound literary voice.

And on that third night, as I sat in an aisle seat and read during intermission, wrestlers milled about. Veronica approached me, the valet for Mr. Touchdown, a football player heel who acted like the most obnoxious version of high school football player stereotype.

There are different worlds in professional wrestling. There’s the contemporary landscape, in which most wrestlers--at least those in the mainstream--don’t do much to keep up appearances off camera, fully aware of all of the documentaries, podcasts, and tell-all books that have exposed wrestling as not a sport, but rather an athletic, predetermined, theatrical mode entertainment. Thus, they do not act but rather conduct themselves like any actor or celebrity version of themselves--often gracious, sometimes a bit full of themselves, but talking with their fans as human beings.

By contrast, there’s the traditional landscape, steeped in kayfabe. Kayfabe is the suggestion that everything in wrestling is real. It’s the dividing line between real people and what’s portrayed in the ring and in storylines, and, historically, when wrestlers did not broadcast that their craft was scripted, kayfabe was the law of the land and performers stayed in character whenever they interacted with people from outside the wrestling world.

Most of the old stars I met at King of Trios didn’t put on any act with me. In a charming dose of old school, Veronica did.

“What are you doing—reading?” she asked. Her voice was nasal, her forehead scrunched in disgust.

I looked up at her. “I am.”

“Who reads at a wrestling show?”

“I suppose I do.” I was conscious of all of my answers being pretty obvious

“What is it?”

I turned the spine of the thread worn library hard cover to her to show her the title as I spoke it aloud.

“Communists—that’s from, like the seventies." She was trying hard. "Why would you read that now?”

I could tell that I was broaching the edge of character and human being. That she was playing the heel bully--and playing it reasonably well--but I also suspected that her knowledge on the history of communism and the American public’s reactions to it was rusty, and I was skeptical she’d ever encountered this particular novel.

The thought crossed my mind, momentarily, that I might play back at her. Try to play the face foil to her heel chicanery, or even out-heel her and make fun of her absurd purple dress.

Call me kind. Call me slow-witted. The truth probably falls somewhere in between. I said, “It’s pretty good.”

She rolled her eyes and walked away.

To this day, I wonder what Veronica made of me. She had picked on me, and not anyone else in my section. Maybe I looked like an easy target, sitting alone with a book in hand. Maybe there was something flirtatious in a woman around my own age stopping by to tease me about my reading habit.

Maybe she talked about me afterward to the other wrestlers. About the geek reading about communists in the middle of a wrestling show, in the United States of friggin’ America.

I’ll never know for sure, and I doubt the moment stuck with her. I turned back to my book in the meantime, though, and continued my journey through until the next bell rang, signaling the start of the next match.