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Faces of Pain
Continuing a weeklong celebration of some of our favorite staff contributions to the magazine over the years, we bring you Cheston Knapp’s real stone cold stunner of an essay.
Faces of Pain
And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.—Numbers 13:33
Bell time for the Keizer Klash was 7:30 pm, sharp. A friend and I had driven the hour south from Portland and arrived early. In the dirt-and-gravel parking lot of the local Lions Club was a beat-up moving truck stenciled on either side with “DOA Pro Wrestling.” The acronym doesn’t stand for “Dead on Arrival,” as I first assumed, but “Don’t Own Anyone,” which, although it has a certain Wild West and existential laissez-faire, primarily refers to the promotion’s business model, the fact that it doesn’t put wrestlers under contract and so doesn’t limit where and with whom they can wrestle—with at least three other independent professional wrestling organizations in the Portland area, the wrestlers here have options. But boasting is a big part of the business, and the managers of DOA were quick to assure me that they were the “premiere” outfit in the Northwest. One went so far as to call their competition “just half a step better than backyard.”
Inside the Lions Club, the ring sat portentously in the center of the faux wood–paneled hall, under a ceiling low enough to preclude top-turnbuckle action, it seemed to me. The wrestlers themselves were out of sight, behind a makeshift screen of black fabric hung across a kind of oversize portable clothes rack, on top of which perched an assortment of party lights that looked like they’d been bought on clearance at Spencer’s Gifts.
The card for the Keizer Klash looked promising. Draven Vargas, “The Plus-Sized Playboy,” vs. CJ Edwards, “The Little Chocolate Drop.” Rockin’ Ricky Gibson vs. Eric Right. Jeremy Blanchard vs. Jonas Albert Robinson. J_SIN Sullivan vs. Dr. Kliever, “The Lean Green Love Machine.” And a tag-team match to end it: the Left Coast Casanovas (“Loverboy” Nate Andrews and Draven Vargas, along with their manager, Mister Ooh-La-La) vs. The Illuminati.
A few days earlier, my friend had asked me if I’d come to the Klash with him—he’s a photographer and wanted to shoot the event. “It’ll be fun,” he said. And when I hesitated, he added, “At the very least, it’ll be an experience.” There, with his camera around his neck, he told one of the managers we were press, and we were escorted through the black fabric into the Lions Club’s kitchen, that is, backstage.
Not counting my elementary school plays, I’d never been backstage at anything before, and I immediately understood the thrill. There hung about the wrestlers an unmistakable feeling of anxious and anticipatory giddiness. Every couple of minutes one of them would peek through the screen to check on the crowd filling the hall and then he’d beat his chest or beat the chest of a compatriot or jump up and down or jump into another wrestler or pump his fist. One rapidly slapped his head with both hands like I’ve seen Greco-Roman wrestlers do, in high school and the Olympics. Watching them amp themselves up, I remembered I’d experienced something similar when I played lacrosse, when my teammates and I would bang helmets together and roar testosteronic roars while listening to backward-R Korn, in what now feels like—and what I often wish were—another life.
Maybe it was because we were in a kitchen, but after the initial thrill wore off, I started to feel less like I was backstage and more like I was at a Halloween house party or in the Castro or at a Halloween house party in the Castro. J_SIN Sullivan’s baggy pleather pants had flames down the sides and he wore a T-shirt that read “Gladstone Rub-a-Dub,” which I later learned is an allusion to an old-school Northwest wrestler, not to a business that specializes in car washes and hand jobs.
Rockin’ Ricky Gibson dressed like he was in a Twisted Sister cover band. They’d both bleached their hair the way kids used to in the nineties. “The Plus-Sized Playboy” Draven Vargas’s face paint smacked of the Insane Clown Posse, and he had brushed his hair forward and styled it into a great big ichthyic fin that rose from the front of his head. His tag-team partner, “Loverboy” Nate Andrews, is bald but for a little island of hair at the top of his forehead, yet in a show of team solidarity he had also styled what he had into a fin, which you could see only in the right light, at the right angle.
Wearing a shiny pleather pin-striped blazer, a purple-sequined shirt, matching hat, and googly black sunglasses, holding a lint brush and a portable electric fan, Mister Ooh-La-La was Francophobia reified and looked like a cartoon villain I couldn’t quite place. “The Lean Green Love Machine,” Dr. Kliever, lists his weight as “242 lbs of surgical steel and sex appeal,” and his signature moves include the Autopsy, the Wheelchair Bound, and the Morphine Drop; he had a Marvin the Martian Mohawk so thick and meticulously coiffured that I swear you could do trigonometry on it. It was dyed a shade of neon green I’ve only ever seen on psychedelic posters and maybe, for that matter, on certain psychedelics. Somehow even those who weren’t seemed shirtless.
“Don’t get a picture with me and him together,” J_SIN said, pointing at Dr. Kliever. “We’re wrestling tonight.” Wouldn’t want to spoil the notion that the show’s all real, not staged and scripted. Not a “work,” as they say. In the world of wrestling, this upkeep of the illusion of reality and authenticity, this maintenance of the suspension of disbelief, is called “kayfabe.” With an ambiguous etymology, the word is often said to be a corruption of the Pig Latin for “fake,” and almost all accounts trace it back to carny culture, in which professional wrestling has its historical roots. The opposite of a work is a “shoot,” as in “straight shooter,” and that amounts to the improvised moves and holds the wrestlers perform, the pain they inflict and endure in the ring. The tension between the reality of the match, the shoot, and what the public knows or believes to be an angle, the work, is an integral factor of the audience’s fun. A fan who can’t or doesn’t distinguish between the gimmick and the authentic is called a “mark.”
My friend focused on Dr. Kliever—magnetic of taglines, he’s also called “The World’s Sexiest Doctor”—who had his back to us. When he turned and noticed the camera, his arms shot up reflexively, as though an electric charge had passed through him, and he flexed his muscles in the classic strongman pose and smiled a smirky and startling and weirdly handsome smile. He was missing his two front teeth.
I peeked through the screen and counted seventy-five people in the crowd, give or take. The adults who’d come alone outnumbered those who’d brought kids, I noted. And people were still arriving, finding their spots on the collapsible steel chairs set up around the ring—steel chairs that you could just tell, via some situational sixth sense, everyone present wanted to see used later as weapons.
An “experience.” I’m not entirely sure what that means anymore. What used to be an obvious and self-evident idea became a phenomenological conundrum for me. A very simple part of the problem is wrapped up in the fact that, in English, we have a single word for two ideas. On the one hand, we register the sensational intensities of the immediate world around us, and this is accomplished through perception of a prereflective sort. On the other, we gain experience over time: experience is an aggregate of everything we’ve gone through, which, with memory’s help, implies a learning process and the development of wisdom of a sort. The Germans distinguish between these ideas—they call the first one Erlebnis, which contains their root for “life” (leben), and the second one Erfahrung, which contains their root for journey (fahrt), as in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous phrase, “Life is a fahrt, not a destination.”
My misgivings started with a vague intuition that my Erlebnis machine had malfunctioned. I wasn’t experiencing the immediate world as I once had. I was a newlywed and had recently bought a house and my puppy had grown into a dog and the grass I’d planted had come in thin and patchy and I was startled to discover I actually cared about that and I was about to turn thirty and had all those clichéd and ramifying little anxieties that attend turning that age and my face had started to look like how I remember my father’s face and my parents had shocked the family by separating after more than three decades of marriage. All the things of promise in my life had become some version of what they’d promised to become, and something about how these possibilities had resolved into reality made me feel as though I were living my life in translation, or as though someone else were living it, really. There it was, my life, my “real” life, and I could see it, watch it, almost touch it, but I couldn’t live it in the fully present way I understood people to mean when they say, “I’m just living my life.” But as I read and thought more about experience, I also came to doubt my capacity for Erfahrung. Outside the obvious temporal continuity, I didn’t sense there was any narrative coherence to my life. And certainly no wisdom. The stuff of my past sat there like an assortment of random events and decidedly was not a record of some concerted effort to become someone or “make something” of myself. And I was overwhelmed by the contingency of the quasi-chaotic chain that stretched behind me through time. In other words, it seemed there was “genuine” or “authentic” experience out there in the world to be had, of both the Erlebnis and Erfahrung sort, just not by me.
During the worst of this, I went to a barbeque at my friend Kyle’s house. Kyle casts an enviable and unmistakable aura. When you’re around him, you begin to feel that life has a certain texture or grain or weave that otherwise—for me, at least—doesn’t exist. He just seems so full of fucking life. And it’s intoxicating. So many people come to his barbeques that his backyard starts to look like the thoroughfare of a shantytown. That night, I wandered around talking to Kyle’s friends, people who play in bands and make art and casually know all about good music, books, and movies, people who ride their bikes everywhere they go even if that means they show up a little sweaty, apparently unbothered by the fact that they show up a little sweaty, people who appear so at home with themselves, and my mind felt buffered, as if it were in a padded cell, and I was hounded by a passage from Henry James’s The Ambassadors, in which Lambert Strether says, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you had your life. If you haven’t had that, what HAVE you had?” By which I really mean to say that I was hounded by that part in Dazed and Confused when Matthew McConaughey says, “You just gotta keep on livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.” I ended up in a corner of the backyard, by the chicken coop, wondering what instinct tells a baby chicken when to peck free of its shell, while Kyle moved from group to group and high-fived all the handsome guys and hugged all the pretty girls and told jokes and laughed and talked plans for his bike crew and his several bands. Everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives.
A few months later, after another party, Kyle and I ended up at a twenty-four-hour Mexican restaurant not far from our houses. It was 2:00 am. We got our food and sat at a booth in the big front window and we could’ve been in a Hopper painting, except we were in Portland, at a Mexican joint, so Hopper would have had to paint us on velvet. Kyle was about to start a new job working for a high-end bicycle company he called the “Rolls-Royce of bikes,” doing a mix of advertising and publicity. For as long as I’d known Kyle, he’d managed a bike shop, and for exactly that long he’d talked about doing something else—whatever they’re doing, twenty- and thirtysomethings in Portland are always talking about doing something else. Kyle’s dream job was to work in a room with a whiteboard, beanbag chairs, a soda fountain, a kegerator, and foos- and skee- and pinball. An ideas room. For five years he’d worked toward making this happen, and that night he talked about his life as if it were a whole, a narrative. Choices he’d made, he would make. And when Kyle asked me, “What about you? You going to stay in town? What are your plans for the future?” I didn’t know what to say.
Listening to Kyle talk about how his plans had come together and what was next for him, I had a mini-revelation. I realized, shockingly and all at once, that I had a history. When I decided to move to Portland on a whim, almost seven years ago, I didn’t realize it would be a life-changing experience. I was young and dumb and myopic and couldn’t yet see that the move would have consequences. It was less a decision than a mindless action. And had I understood the magnitude that attends such a decision, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. I would’ve been too afraid, staggered by all the possibilities I was shutting down by choosing one. The terrifying thing of it was, this history hardly felt like mine.
This is your life, I told myself. Do it justice.
In addition to advertising “Live Pro Wrestling,” the fliers for the Keizer Klash indicated that the event was a benefit show for a kid named Hunter Osburn. Hunter’s dad manages a local Jiffy Lube, where “Loverboy” Nate Andrews also works, when he’s not wrestling professionally. Backstage, Nate said that everyone at work, their hearts really went out to his boss and his family. They felt his pain. And he wanted to do what he could to help them.
Hunter has a rare disease called Paroxysmal Skew Deviation, a term all the wrestlers said with studied nonchalance, though none of them could tell me what it means. What they knew was they were there for him, “the sick kid,” and that the proceeds from the event, including their pay, would go toward sending him to the Mayo Clinic.
Before the show, Scarlett, the DOA ring girl, whose breasts and bottom looked as though they’d been inflated and who seemed almost criminally sweet and caring in her role of Team Mom, invited the family into the ring.
She handed the mike to Hunter’s mother, who explained that something is wrong with her son’s brain and brain stem. Doctors know very little about the disease, and don’t know the cause, but it affects Hunter’s eyes, his vision, and his ability to focus. One eye will sometimes move upward spontaneously, against Hunter’s will, and roll away from the other in what essentially sounds like a lazy eye from hell. Worse still, sometimes it happens to both eyes at once. Hunter, who was maybe ten and stood between his mom and dad with his hands buried deep in his pockets, frequently suffers headaches of such terrifying acuteness they reduce him to tears. He experiences blurred vision, weakness, and general fatigue. Seizure activity hangs about him as a when-not-if. He was rarely sleeping through the night because of the pain, which had forced him to be homeschooled this year.
“That’s the story. The short story,” she concluded, giving a sense of her exhaustion, and her own pain.
I’ve lived pretty much my whole life with a tacit yet strict understanding of pain: at all costs it is to be avoided. Fuck pain, really. Fuck physical and emotional pain. Fuck spiritual pain. Pain hurts, after all. But while it seems an obvious and instinctive stance, in many ways I know that it makes me a coward. And deep down in my dyspeptic American gut, I know my avoidance guarantees a certain measure of unfulfillment, for as our pop culture cliché goes, “No pain, no gain.” Within this gnomic flourish lies the haunting reminder that the road to success of any kind passes first through hardship. It’s funny, because the aphorism also evokes a linguistic resonance: the word peril shares a root with the word experience, which suggests that one lives through and learns from danger, from crisis. From pain, of one sort or another. This adds a nice inflection to C. S. Peirce’s statement “Experience is our only teacher.”
What I figure now, looking back, is that my stance of avoidance, of constantly choosing the smooth road, has prevented me from developing into one of the many people who once lay before me as a possibility to become. Had I been more willing to experience physical pain, I’m sure I would have played lacrosse in college, or I would have been less timid about how big I’d go and made a more serious stab at skateboarding at least semiprofessionally. Fear of emotional pain, of vulnerability, kept me from relational depth and led to empty and meaningless dealings (“experiences”) with women and many thin friendships with men. I might have been a better spiritual being, with a fuller sense of what that means—might not now be a recreant who has lost much of his sensitivity to what he once understood as his soul—had I been able to address and manage the pain of doubt and the pain of alienation and the deep, self-rattling fear that even just the idea of faith bred in me.
Which all brings me to this: when I was nine or ten, I overheard an argument my parents were having. My folks fought infrequently enough for the fights to be memorable mostly by virtue of their strangeness. An electric and dangerous mood would settle on the house and my brothers and I would sit where we’d been caught when it all started and we would listen. This one, I was in my room, and I put my ear to the door I’d closed when I knew things were going to get worse before they got better. Something one of us had done or said must have stuck in my dad’s craw, because in the course of the argument, I heard him say we were getting to be too sensitive. He accused Mom of making us soft. Of turning us into momma’s boys. I don’t remember anything else about the fight, but I remember that. I backed away from the door I’d been leaning against and didn’t know what to do with what I’d heard, so I went on acting as though I’d never heard it at all. But God, that phrase. Twenty years on and the possible truth of that phrase still stings.
Before their Three Year Anniversary show, the DOA wrestlers held a meet and greet at Pattie’s Home Plate Café—primarily a fifties diner/soda fountain, Pattie’s is also a music venue, sock-hop dance hall, gift shop, clothing store, video store, costume-rental shop, meeting place, and, I’m pretty sure, more—in St. Johns, one of the northernmost neighborhoods in Portland. St. Johns has always seemed to me to be a living reminder of what Portland must have been like before it was hip and cool to live here. There’s none of the yuppie influence that pullulates in the Pearl District or the hipster-doofus aesthetic that teems elsewhere. There’s no Western-influenced simulacra. No paraphernal flannel or fashion-statement glasses or knowing facial hair. Although it may be read on to the place, irony has not yet invaded and colonized St. Johns as it has much of the rest of the city. When you’re there, you feel it’s safe to take the place at its word. Work boots are worn to work and big-framed vintage glasses are just the glasses people have had for thirty years and mustaches are grown to make a face look better. Pattie’s hosts a regular Bigfoot believers meeting.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the wrestlers had set up a card table with two black leather, gold-plated belts; T-shirts; DVDs; and fliers for the Three Year Anniversary show the next day. J_SIN Sullivan sat in a chair built for a much smaller man. To call him simply “big” would be a silly understatement. In the ring, yes, he looks big. But when you’re next to him, he’s beyond big. Upright, he’s just shy of six and a half feet tall and weighs 380 pounds. You’d shudder and avert your eyes and pray little Please God prayers if he boarded your plane. All You Can Eat buffets must factor people his size into their P&Ls. He’s gigantic.
A fan—the only one who stopped by in the two hours I was there—approached for a photo. J_SIN slung the Tag Team Champions belt he and Big Ugly own over his shoulder. Together, they are “Ugly as Sin” and weigh 650 pounds. In the ring, they are like two parts of one person, and are unstoppable. J_SIN posed his menacing pose and pictures were taken and the fan thanked him and walked off.
Now, there’s J_SIN and there’s Jason and the difference between the two is at once subtle and marked. After the fan moved on, J_SIN relaxed back into Jason, the man who works by day at a printing plant and who’s a founder and part owner of an independent wrestling promotion, in which he is a star and for which he writes all the angles—he’s an auteur. Jason’s bigness isn’t really intimidating. Rather, he suggests a soul-comforting equipoise, more Buddha than the bad guy he plays. Part of me really wanted Jason to hug me and tell me not to worry, that everything was going to be all right. I imagined being hugged by a redwood tree or a Mini Cooper. But Jason’s bigness was still intimidating enough for me not to suggest we try it out, a hug.
“Some people just have it,” he said. The “it” he was referring to is the “it” factor, those undeterminable characteristics an entertainer or person possesses that make him compelling, magnetic. Broadly speaking, this is talent, charisma, charm. For some wrestlers, it’s physical, the way they carry themselves, a move they do in the ring. For others, it’s mike skills, swagger, the way they talk. The “it” factor amounts to the way a wrestler manages and engages the crowd—it’s the crowd, after all, with its response or lack thereof, that decides how long a match goes and whether a character makes it. (“If they’re not feeling it,” Jason said, “we cut it short. No one’s bigger than the show.”) As a “heel” in DOA, J_SIN’s job is to inspire the fans’ derision and hate, to rile them up and get them rooting for the “faces,” the good guys.
“I’ve got this thing I do with my eyes,” he continued. He cocked his head to the side and made movements with his brow and then said, “I can’t really do it out here. It’s the sun. Too bright. But you get the idea.”
A few kids rode leisurely by on BMX bikes. They shouted something I didn’t catch.
“Nothing fake about this,” J_SIN called back, patting the belt he still had over his shoulder. “Come over and I’ll show you. Or are you too scared?”
When the kids had passed, he turned to me and said, “People are always like, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter, it’s all fake anyway.’ But is this fake?” He held up his forearm and pointed to a four-inch pink scar that looked like a gummy worm. “That’s from barbwire.”
In his seminal essay on professional wrestling, Roland Barthes writes, “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.” The gist of the essay is that professional wrestling is a “spectacle of excess” and a kind of morality play, an exercise of suffering, defeat, and, most importantly, justice, and though highly athletic, it is decidedly not a sport. Unlike the crowd at a boxing or mixed martial arts match, the crowd at a professional wrestling match wants an image of passion, not passion itself. The shows may be scripted, but they’re not choreographed, and while some of the suffering and pain are amplified for effect, “sold,” that hardly makes it all fake.
Jason said he’s bled in the ring twelve or thirteen times. At an event for which fans bring weapons for the wrestlers to use on one another, he got a cut on his back deep enough to demand medical attention, but he didn’t go to the doctor. He easy-stitched it, which I learned means he simply superglued the wound shut. Two years ago, he partially tore his MCL and he still hasn’t had the surgery he knows he needs, but continues to wrestle regardless. He said Home Boy Quiz (HBQ) just had back fusion surgery—three words that should never be said together—and now two rods and six pins stabilize his spine. He’s set for a comeback in a matter of months. I saw a picture of Wade “By God” Hess from the Taipei Death Match a couple of years ago. He and Thunder had dipped their taped-up hands in glue and rolled them in broken fluorescent lights, then punched and chopped each other until that became stale, at which point they started smashing the fluorescent tubes over each other’s heads and across each other’s backs. In the picture, Hess is on his knees and his back looks like a river delta of pulpy skin and blood. Everyone has a bad back or bad knees or a bum shoulder or a crooked nose or broken ribs that didn’t heal right or sciatica. Dr. Kliever has to do yoga every morning to make it through the day and for a time had burns all over his back from a show where he was slammed onto a table that had been lit on fire and, consequently, caught fire himself. Plus, of course, there’s the situation with his teeth.
“Concussions are so common that they’re, that we, hold on. Wait. Where was I going with that? Every time you’re slammed to the ring, anyway, it’s like you’re putting yourself through a fifteen- or twenty-mile-per-hour car crash,” Jason said. “In order to deal with it you need a lot of mental toughness. That’s more important than physical toughness, really. You have to condition yourself to deal with it.”
One of the managers came out of Pattie’s to tell Jason there was a girl inside who wanted an autograph, but she was too shy or scared or awestruck to ask for it herself. Jason signed a picture of the DOA logo, smiling a smile more private than public.
When I asked why he puts himself through all the pain, what he gets out of wrestling, Jason said, “There’s that, the fans, of course. And I just love the sense of community I get from wrestling. I met my girlfriend through wrestling. I’ve met my friends through wrestling. It’s also just fun as hell.”
The promoter said they should probably wrap up. They had to head to the airport to pick up “Maniac” Matt Borne (of Doink the Clown fame) and Raven, who were coming in especially for the Three Year Anniversary show. Before we disbanded, I asked Jason whether he thought DOA could ever support him and the other wrestlers full time.
“It’s a dream, of course. Because, I’ll be brutally honest,” he said, as though he could be honest any other way. “It’s really humbling, going from being the boss to being the grunt. Monday morning back to work. It’s hard. That’s the reality of it.”
I had started to worry that the meds I took for depression and anxiety were leveling me into a sort of listless, anhedonic, das Manian existence. So in an effort to purify my experience and gain access to what I imagined were deeper realms of myself, realms more authentic and vivifying than any I’d recently inhabited, I decided to go off them. Because I didn’t know any better, I tried quitting cold turkey. I’d been on them for five years, and on my second day off I started having vertiginous fits so bad I had to lie down for thirty minutes or more. The dizziness was of a deeper, more severe sort than I’d ever experienced, qualitatively different than what happens when you childishly spin around a lot of times. There was then an inexplicable paresthesia in my arms and palpitations in my chest that made me worry (“A stroke and a heart attack? Great.”). There were shocks and jolts that ran up and down my spine, to and from the base of my brain. They’re called “brain zaps” or “cranial zings,” and sound a lot more whimsical and fun—like some cartoon bubble out of Adam West–era Batman—than they really are in reality. Great, gusty mood swings overwhelmed me. Anger and anxiety and fear and a deep unutterable sadness. A kind of akathisia alighted and I felt as though I’d had too much coffee when I hadn’t even had any coffee. I couldn’t keep still. I paced and stomped about. I cowered and shook. I wept at TV commercials, at nothing at all. I was a mess. I felt as if I was going crazy. As if I was turning into somebody else.
After the Keizer Klash match with J_SIN, a victorious Dr. Kliever stood sweaty and breathless by the ring. He leaned against one of the ring’s posts, signed autographs, and posed for pictures with kids from the audience, most of whom came up to just about his waist. There was something of a thrilling and transgressive cultural exception about all this. Parents letting—no, rather, encouraging—their kids to get close to this man wearing nothing but little leather undies, who’s missing prominent teeth and has a large crustacean tattooed on his chest, which was red and welted from J_SIN’s chops, and who was breathing suggestively and had sweat so much that he glistened and whose verdigris Mohawk had lost its initial pluck and verve and was now flopped over and matted and sad in a way that’s probably best signified by the sound of a slide whistle. The atmosphere was charged.
In line with the kids to have his picture taken was an older fan. Disheveled in his loose jeans and unbuttoned flannel jacket, he walked with a cane and looked like he could be a Vietnam vet. When it was his turn, he congratulated Dr. Kliever and said J_SIN was a whale and a jerk and it took balls to get in the ring with him. He asked Dr. Kliever how he felt, after a win like that.“You never get used to it,” Dr. Kliever said. “You never get used to the pain.”
I lied to my dad, said I was getting in on Friday, when I had arrived in Charlottesville the day before. I was in town briefly and wasn’t sure I wanted to see him, what with all the anger and disappointment and shame, the annoyance, confusion, and pity—the rawness of all the shit I’d rather not reckon with. But I felt bad, guilty, and from a friend’s back porch I told him I was calling from the train, couldn’t talk long, but could we meet for coffee later that afternoon. Before he’d subleased a cheap room in a house with UVA graduate students and finally moved out of our family house, he’d asked my friend if he could live with him and his wife. He doesn’t know I know this and even if he did I’m not sure he would see the problem. On the phone he said Mom had Airbnb guests coming that night, and he had to drive out to the house to cut the grass. So we made plans to meet for half an hour the next morning, at 7:00 am, before he headed to College Park, Maryland, to watch a UVA lacrosse game. Later that day I learned the grass had already been cut, that he, too, had lied. And then, feeling bad, guilty, I guess, he went to pick me up from the train station, thus catching me in my own lie. I didn’t answer his phone calls, just texted him that I’d see him in the morning.
We met at Spudnuts, a fifties diner famous in Charlottesville for its dense potato-flour donuts and thin coffee. It seems that the world or someone in it has always executed some injustice against my dad. This time, he wanted to discuss how my brother had shown up late for a lacrosse game someone had given him tickets to. Good seats. Box seats. As far back as I can remember, people have always given Dad shit like this. It wasn’t until recently that it even occurred to me to wonder if maybe all this time he’s been asking, or if all the kindnesses people have shown him over the years have been tinged with altruistic pathos. Even just the thought of this shamed and saddened me. But my brother had missed the first quarter and a few minutes of the second. What did I think of that? Wasn’t it messed up? Rude? (Was this really what we were talking about?) When he asked about the train station, I came clean, said that I hadn’t been sure I wanted to see him, that I didn’t know what to make of everything that was going on, the separation, et cetera. Confusion bloomed on his face, for we are a family that thrives on the surface. I had nudged a door open a crack, and behind it was a world of uncomfortable and knottily complicated emotions. For a moment I felt like I was ten again, waiting for his reaction, calculating his response. After a spell of silence, though, he closed the door. He talked about how my mom needed to get help. “I’m getting help,” he said. “All kinds of help.” I noticed that he said that word, “help,” as though he resented even it. And then our half hour was up, as if this had been some kind of prison visit. We hugged outside and he said, “Pray for your mother, bud,” and I said would, even though I hadn’t prayed in years and probably wouldn’t start again anytime soon. And then I turned away, not wanting to see him get into his dinky little truck and blow into the pneumatic doohickey he has to blow into in order for the truck to start. I didn’t want that experience. Walking back to my friend’s house, a heavy, donut-sick feeling in my stomach and the sun working its way through the morning haze, I wondered what alchemical substance is added to time that makes it possible for us to forgive.
I spent my time at the first few wrestling events looking for socially or sexually or politically charged significations and signs I could write about. They’re everywhere to be found. Take, for instance, the wrestlers’ obsession with the microphone. In the face of working-class anonymity, of a system that renders them all but powerless, voiceless, controlling the mike could be read as their way of asserting control over their situation, their lives. All the wrestlers “have something to say,” and that something is always abusively mocking or derisive, of either their opponent or the crowd. When the crowd starts in with chants of “You suck,” the wrestlers are quick to respond, “Shut your mouth” or “Let me finish.” This all seems symbolically complicated by the fact that the cordless mikes often cut out and even when they do work they amplify and distort in equal measure, muffling the wrestlers’ voices into the nonsense language adults speak in Charlie Brown cartoons, and if we hadn’t all been sitting close enough to the ring to hear through the distortion, we’d have been totally lost. I thought of the improvisational nature of professional wrestling as a field of play and an embrace of pain that Nietzsche would have associated with his übermensch, and probably would have admired. Then I thought maybe professional wrestling could be seen as a metaphor for our own normal and mediated lives, some of it real, sure, but a lot of it scripted, posed, fashioned for other people to observe and assess, to “like,” and if they didn’t, we’d tailor it better the next time—that maybe people get so up in arms about pro wrestling being “fake” because they’re really sensitive and insecure about all the ways their own lives are a work.
But after my third event, I thought looking for these signs and “readings” was just another form of avoidance, of distancing myself from the world and my role in it. As Barthes writes, “What matters is not what [the crowd] thinks but what it sees.” And as part of the crowd at the more than half dozen events I attended, I saw a lot.
I saw “Loverboy” Nate Andrews introduce himself by stuttering the first syllable of his name with an overactive tongue—“Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-LOVERBOY…”—in a way clearly meant to signify cunnilingus. I noticed then that he’d shaved most of his stomach and chest, leaving one long center strip of hair from his neck to under his belly button. When it was his turn with the mike, Thunder called it an “unhappy trail” and we all erupted.
I saw C. W. Bergstrom, who’s fifty-four years old and whose prime dates back to the days when Rowdy Roddy Piper wrestled here, come out and say to another tag team, “I hope you packed a lunch, because we’re taking you to school.” To which his opponent from the Honor Society responded, “My partner and I are the true masters of the double team. Just ask this girl,” and he pointed to a woman in the front row, which drew cheap heat, jeers, and boos, but didn’t seem to register any actual offense.
I learned that when he was eighteen, Mister Ooh-La-La legally changed his name to Mister Ooh-La-La. And I learned that he had starred on an episode of Jerry Springer.
I saw Dr. Kliever throw J_SIN into the ropes and then clothesline him when he bounced back into the ring, and I saw all 380 pounds of J_SIN go horizontal in the air and fall to the mat with the sound of a cannon, after which Dr. Kliever walked around the ring pointing to his chest with his thumbs like He’s the Man.
I saw a number of head butts to the groins of supine and spread-eagled men that looked like deranged and hellish fellatio.
I saw crowd members with what must have been seventy-inch waists hold up homemade signs that said “Food Stamp Tramp” when the Left Coast Casanovas came out with their escort, Mary Jane Payne. As they entered the ring, I saw the Casanovas hold down the middle rope for Mary Jane, who paused for an awkward and long few seconds when her head came close to Draven Vargas’s crotch and her bottom came close to “Loverboy” Nate Andrews’s crotch, at which point the two wrestlers posed a high five to complete the pantomime of a sexual maneuver known as the Eiffel Tower, at which the audience collectively groaned.
I saw J_SIN point to a much smaller opponent and say, “I’ve had bowel movements bigger than him,” and I really almost believed that.
I learned that a 50/50 raffle means the winner splits the take with the promotion.
When I arrived early at an event, I saw wrestlers warming up and going over their moves and they were wearing T-shirts that hung over their little spandex undies in a way that made me think they might not actually be wearing little spandex undies at all, that they might be porky pigging it.
I once sat next to a guy with a thick New York accent who advised, “Never get really stoned and come to watch pro wrestling. Trust me, bro. Unless you can get in free.” Throughout each match, he provided a running commentary, naming every move and every hold that happened in the ring. He’d interrupt himself to talk about the overall state of DOA and which characters “had legs,” who might make it to the WWE. During the main event, after telling me what one move was and who had pioneered it, he said, “God, this is pathetic. I know this is pathetic. I need to get a girlfriend.”
I couldn’t help but see that some of the wrestlers’ little spandex undies looked more full than other wrestlers’ little spandex undies and wondered why the less endowed wrestlers didn’t opt for shorts.
My heart went out to one wrestler, gone generally flabby and a little gynecomastic, when a twelve-year-old girl in front of me started to chant, “Get a sports bra!”
I saw Big Ugly stand in the ring wearing a plastic neck brace and tell a story about having recently been in a bad car accident with a semi. He’d had to spend time in the hospital, where some wrestlers had visited him. Though he was in a lot of pain, he guaranteed that he’d be back in the ring as soon as he could. He made a point of saying that a lot of guys in the business, they spend their lives on painkillers to numb themselves. He didn’t want that life. J_SIN said he would wrestle their tag-team match against the Left Coast Casanovas alone, in honor of Big Ugly’s pain. And I felt a great wave of tension and then shock and then confusion wash over me when, during the match, Big Ugly rushed out from backstage, doffed his neck brace and hastily discarded it, picked up a collapsible steel chair on his way into the ring, and used it to smack J_SIN across the head. The crowd was stupefied. J_SIN lay stunned on the mat and Ugly hit him another time. Then Ugly got another collapsible steel chair and put it on top of J_SIN’s head and hit that chair with the first one. Someone behind me said, “I can’t believe they let this happen.” Another said, “Nothing fake about that.” And I completely marked out. I was genuinely confused. Was he okay? Was Ugly faking? What just happened? After the managers got Ugly out of the ring, three wrestlers came out to help J_SIN backstage. My friend got a picture of the four of them walking away from the ring, and when we looked at the photo later, we saw that Dr. Kliever is smiling at the camera, and his smile is a different smile than I’d seen on him before. It is full of gleaming and perfectly white teeth and he looks movie-star handsome and I didn’t know what to think.
I saw so many incredible things I almost couldn’t believe my eyes.
Six months after the event, I found pictures online that a local journalist had taken during the Keizer Klash. There I was in a few of them, standing in the back of the Lions Club, leaning against the faux-wood paneling, an out-of-focus ghost taking notes as grown men pantomime a primal and originary struggle. This picture convicted me. I’d gotten close enough to know just how far I really was from the world. Something had to change. That is, I had to change something. “We moderns,” Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science, “may well be, all of us, in spite of our frailties and infirmities, tyros who rely on fantasies, for lack of any ample firsthand experience.”
The DOA training facility is in Troutdale, Oregon, about a half hour east of where I live in Portland. It also serves as a school where Dr. Kliever teaches new wrestlers the ropes, as it were. I drove out I-84, the Columbia River on my left almost the entire way, and I thought about time and experience and about how one is supposed to go about articulating either, let alone both. And so I was also thinking about my dad. How much of our relationship is a work? How much a shoot? Mt. Hood rose outside my windshield. Clouds crossed it. In the nearly seven years I’ve lived here, Hood has never looked real to me. Against the sky, it looks flat and matted, too much like what it is, and this subtle irreality has always led me to think of it as a symbol. How large and how small. Grandeur. Awe. Ineffability. Far-reaching singleness. Timeless time and eternal return.
Behold! A mountain.
There was an accident on the highway and three lanes became one and traffic slowed to a creeping pace as everyone passing tried to assess the damage, counted their stars. I checked my Instagram account on my phone to see whether any of my seventeen friends had liked the photo I’d posted earlier. Kyle had, and he’d posted a couple new photos for his 360 followers. I thought of posting a shot of the accident. There were a few fire trucks, several police cars, and a couple of ambulances, a dizzying display of spiraling light. I bet I could find a good Instagram filter for that. The rescue workers had lobotomized one of the cars that had come to a crumpled rest on the right shoulder. Its roof was peeled back like the lid of an anchovy tin. On the embankment, an abrasion of fresh red paint stretched behind it. I would put a knowing caption on my photo, an allusion, play to the local crowd with “Randle Patrick McMurphy,” and get tons of likes. I slowed, assessed, and only after I had taken a picture that came out blurry and smeared-looking did I consider that it was probably in bad taste anyway, the situation too real. As I drove on, I thought about how, at an earlier time in my life, I would have prayed for the safety of the people involved.
Hölderlin has a great line that kept coming to me: “But where danger is, grows the saving power also.” And where something is covered, hidden, there lies the possibility for revelation. I got off the highway and drove past the semitruck dealership and then the Troutdale airport, where two small helicopters were either taking off or landing, just indecisively hovering there. I passed a sprawling and enervated office complex no different than one I remembered at that moment I used to work in. And then development abruptly ended and I was in the middle of nowhere and I almost missed the turn. I looked for address numbers on a street that had large garages on the left and semitruck trailers behind chain fences on the right and knew I had arrived when I saw an SUV with a DOA sticker across its entire back windshield. I parked behind it. When I got out, I saw hanging from its rearview mirror what looked like shrunken heads. The training facility’s windows and door were cheaply mirrored and I stood a moment in the thoroughfare between the two strips of garages. My face was imperfectly and fuzzily reflected in the DOA insignia on the door. I walked up and my reflection grew larger. At the door, I hesitated, imagining the world of hurt that would be revealed to me in the ring. But I pulled it open, because I had decided that more than anything just then, I wanted a piece of the action.
Cheston Knapp is managing editor of Tin House magazine and executive director of the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Portland, OR, with the choices he’s made.