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.