Am I A Pro-Wrestling Fan Or A Human Being

AM I A PRO-WRESTLING FAN OR A HUMAN BEING? AN ESSAY BY TIM KAIL

AM I A PRO-WRESTLING FAN OR A HUMAN BEING?

AN ESSAY BY TIM KAIL

I.

I stood with my hands in my pockets and my eyes on the floor, waiting for the next stall or urinal to open up.

We were a pack of shifty men, unaccustomed to bathroom lines. A father and a son were behind me, talking about Spiderman: Homecoming (the movie we'd all just finished watching). The father liked it. The son wasn't so sure. Both loved Michael Keaton. Most of us were quiet save a few customary post-pee man-grunts. 

A stall door opened, and a bearded young man exited. He wore a Bullet Club tee-shirt. I recognized the skull and crossed AKs immediately. Even though I knew nothing about the Bullet Club (other than the fact that they exist and are important in indy wrestling) I experienced the warmth of recognition. 

A fellow wrestling fan!

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Here was another in the flesh - not a Twitter profile pic or an angry Facebook comment. A living, breathing fan proudly displaying their fandom. Intuitively, I knew it wasn't unusual to see a wrestling fan at a big budget comic book movie. There's a significant crossover there. But, emotionally, I felt like I had discovered a Sasquatch who also happened to share my interests. 

You see, I don't get out much. My existence rarely extends beyond a two-mile radius (in the physical sense) and that is very much by design. I've had my fill of most people and most "activities". I know what I like and what I don't like, and I'm finding fewer and fewer good reasons to deviate from those norms. I'm distrusting of "new people" (especially when they're in groups or crowds or confined spaces), I find old acquaintances exhausting, I hate traveling, and my resting state of mind is somewhere between Larry David and Jason Borne - an overly analytical anticipation of the worst merged with a crippling hyper-awareness of my surroundings.

This is why just being "around people", in this context, is unusual for me these days. So when something "good" happens in an environment of strangers, it feels doubly good because it subverts this deeply ingrained distrust and anxiety. 

I wanted to say or do something to acknowledge this rare moment of connection, but I didn't have the vocabulary for it. There was no "like button" for this. There were no emojis or gifs to stand-in for how I felt. I also didn't know or really care about The Bullet Club itself, so my approval could be misunderstood or easily dismissed should an inquiry follow my attempt at human engagement. And then things could really go wrong:

"Great shirt, man!"

"Thanks! You psyched for the G1?"

God, just kill me now.

I simply appreciated the fact that I knew what his shirt signified about him and how that related back to my own love of wrestling. How do I say, "I like your shirt, but don't read too much into that, man, because I'm not a Bullet Club fan, but I'm also not an anti-Bullet Club person, I just like that you like wrestling and it's good to see us out here in the real world!"

I quickly realized I could not participate in the meaning of that shirt at all, and so I had to just keep my hands in my pockets and my eyes on the tile and file that feeling away in the recesses of my mind. 

That's when the other man waiting in front of me held up his hand in the "Too Sweet" gesture (pinching one's middle-finger, forefinger, and thumb together and slightly raising the index and pinky). This sign was popularized by members of "The Kliq", and the NWO in the 1990s. The Bullet Club adopted this sign as their own, and it is a way of signifying membership in (or fandom of) The Bullet Club today.

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The young, bearded man in his Bullet Club tee instantly smiled, nodded, and said, "Yehaaaaeh!" as he similarly raised his hand in the "Too Sweet" gesture. The two men, obviously strangers, touched the tips of their fingers together, and then parted ways. 

(The young, bearded man hadn't even washed his hands before they touched)

I am not accustomed to the experience of envy. 

It is alien to me, like a gestating Xenomorph that bursts through my skull at the most unexpected and inconvenient of times. Well, it came screaming forth with unambiguous intensity the moment these two perfect strangers transformed into perfect friends for the duration of that dainty gesture.

They were none the wiser, of course. The other men certainly didn't notice or didn't care about these two random wrestling fans. The drama of the situation had unfolded entirely in my own mind. Even you, reading this, may be shocked that another human could put "this much" thought into something so seemingly benign. My only response to you is, this is the way my brain works

I stepped forward in line. I peed. I washed my hands. I didn't wait for the air dryers because air dryers lie about what they are. I left with damp hands, thinking, "Maybe I could talk about this on the podcast". 

My only recourse.

That was two months ago. I haven't talked about it on the podcast yet.

In reality, their exchange happened so quickly that it had barely happened. But, in my consciousness, it has left a small crater. Smoky debris still lingers there, and it's not entirely clear what happened; only that something happened. If my interpretation of that vague angst is accurate, then this moment left an impression because it epitomizes my identity as a wrestling fan and as someone who critiques the medium.

II.

In the span of about ten seconds, I had gone from a place of warm recognition to a place of cold isolation; a sense that I will forever remain on the periphery of pro-wrestling fandom. Their union was made of symbols and gestures rather than words, an intimate and ritualistic language that only they could speak. It resulted in a literal touch (and the likely exchange of urine and fecal matter). 

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I could do nothing but stand there and watch. I understood the meanings of these symbols and rituals and gestures, but I was completely unable to directly participate despite that knowledge.

I am the Jane Goodall of professional wrestling.

For me, being a wrestling fan (and someone who writes & podcasts about wrestling without ever actually thinking of myself as a 'wrestling journalist') is sometimes like being wedged inside the glass that encases a snowglobe. 

Within the globe is the gooey confetti fun of wrestling fandom where everyone cheers or boos or bickers or laughs in unison. Things make sense in there, and everyone seems to understand what's going on. Outside is the real world, looking in, bemused or intrigued by what they see, free to jump in at any time. 

I am neither completely in nor completely out. I am lodged in the glass itself, a separate dimension altogether that I can't quite escape. My dimension provides a view of the inner world and all the emotions it inspires. My dimension also provides a view of the outer world and all the observational powers it affords. Yet my fandom refuses to reside comfortably in either of those spaces for too long. I see both, but I don't really experience both. I experience the sensation of being permanently wedged between the two, my nose bent against the glass as my exclamations of happiness or sadness bounce back into my throat as hot air.

That's what I felt as I watched those two men clink fingertips in the bathroom. It is a peculiar kind of paralysis.

I “get it”, but I can't get it.

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III.

This uncertainty or “in-betweeness” is not something our society, let alone the vigorously opinionated pro-wrestling community, tolerates.

We are expected to operate like a collection of zeroes and ones, knowing exactly how we feel about everything instantaneously without putting much thought or effort into that feeling. Then, after formulating our hasty "Yes!" or “No!", we are to proudly project that infallible opinion or understanding of self upon a screen for the world to see.

This is why putting our opinions on the internet is so risky. 

Once released into the cyberwild, they remain fixed, that moment immortalized as a Tweet, comment, or content. Our old internet opinions are like holes in the wall that reveal where uneven pictures once hung; you confidently bashed that nail in place thinking "I don't need a tape measure or a level, I can just eyeball this" and now all that remains is an incessant little reminder of your bad decision. You can Spackle it or roll wallpaper over it, but it's still there, haunting you, and you are responsible for it.  

The internet, and the foundation it provides fan-communities, does not factor into its equation how human beings change over time. The internet can't do that because it's not smart enough. All the internet can do is become really good at turning us into machines. And that's exactly what it does even for the most thoughtful of individuals.

If you're predisposed to not think too much about your existence (the who, what, when, where, and why of you and all that entails), the internet has found a best friend in you. Everything is awful or everything is awesome to you, and truth is a gnat easily squashed.

Put another way:

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If you are introspective, the internet doesn't like you so much, but it appreciates how much you'll pay for the feeling of importance, a sense that you are better than the binary existence of those lesser beings around you. The thoughtful get lured into the Internet's bright and reassuring entrepreneurial matrix. Over time, their introspection is traded for a sense of unchecked rightness, emboldened by their community of followers who tacitly endorse their point of view. 

But what if your human mind isn't sated by the internet's business-model? What if an individual's introspection, or opinion, doesn't stop at the feeling of being appreciated by others?

If you, like me, aren't sure how you feel about all aspects of a particular art, there isn't a literal mechanism, apart from a liberated mind and interaction with fellow humans (in the flesh), that allows you to develop a process whereby you're able to easily arrive at a more complete understanding of self. 140 characters, even in the form of a MEGA THREAD, is not designed to foster real personal growth or accommodate an evolving consciousness. It’s designed to make you feel like you have attained those things quickly.

The Internet can distract us from the value of longterm mental growth, and it can even convince us that introspection is synonymous with indecision and that changing one’s mind is synonymous with hypocrisy.

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IV.

About a month ago I spent some time watching New Japan Pro-Wrestling, mostly the G1 Climax Tournament. I enjoyed what I watched. I thought a lot of it was excellent. I even wrote about it and did a podcast about it. I declared that it was great, and, in many ways, exactly what I'd been looking for in a pro-wrestling promotion. I even recorded a fun conversation about it with podcaster Gerald Cooper. I went on about how much I loved the crowd and the tone and the style of the promotion. All of that is true. 

Then, a couple weeks went by where I simply didn't bother logging into my New Japan World profile. Not out of malice or an active disinterest. It just wasn't on my mind.

I went to work. I took care of my wife and my dog. I began moving to a new apartment. I put Amazon furniture together with wooden dowels and Allen wrenches. I watched Raw & SmackDown in 30-minute sprints while I drank my morning coffee.

Wrestling became the gentle background noise of my life once again.

Then I saw some Tweets about how great some of the latest G1 matches were, especially between Okada and Omega, and my interest piqued and I thought, "I'll definitely get around to that - maybe even do another article and another podcast about it”.

People who read my work and listen to my podcast reached out to me, expressing their excitement for my newfound interest in New Japan, eager to join me in my budding fandom of the promotion. They too seemed eager for a meaningful connection. For them, I thought, I must check this out! I can’t let them down. I have to watch these matches!

A few more days went by. My life marched on. Things changed. But my interest in New Japan remained fixed on the internet as "the promotion I've always wanted!". For my readers and listeners, that's where my interest had remained since that episode of the podcast debuted on July 31st.

But for me, that is a lifetime ago, and the internet cannot bridge that gap unless I used it as a means of updating my readers & listeners about every minute of my day and every movement of my consciousness.

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I didn't get around to watching those matches that I knew I "should" watch.

The past few weeks, I hadn't even thought to do so because everything else has taken precedent in my mind.

Then, a few nights ago, I was calculating my monthly expenses: college loans, maintenance, subscriptions etc. 

“Oh…” I exhaled, when I saw New Japan World on my bank statement. $10/month isn’t a lot to some people. I’ve certainly spent $10 for products I liked a lot less than New Japan. But the purpose of calculating my monthly expenses that night was to cut things I didn’t really need so as to bring greater financial stability to my life. I had to justify every dollar with methodical confidence. 

“Okay, well…maybe I can cram all the rest of the G1 stuff this weekend so that I can talk about it, and then cancel the subscription to save money.”

That was a short conversation with myself, because even though I genuinely enjoyed everything I saw of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, the idea of binge-watching the remainder of the G1 Climax elicited a sigh of preemptive exhaustion. It felt like a chore. Like homework. And that’s not how I want to feel about wrestling, and it’s certainly not a feeling I want to pay for.

So I decided to cancel my subscription to New Japan World (for now). I felt fine about the decision because I knew I would never summon the time nor the desire to watch the rest of the G1 in the immediate future.

But that article I wrote and that podcast I did - they'll think I've betrayed them, they'll think I'm a flip-flopper!

As I clicked unsubscribe, I envisioned my readers and listeners collapsing into their seats like Obi-Wan after Alderaan is destroyed by the first dreaded Death Star.

“I feel a great disturbance in The Force, like a pro-wrestling fan just cancelled their subscription to New Japan”.

There I was again, trapped in the glass, wondering why cancelling my New Japan subscription was so obviously the right decision. How could that be when I had legitimately enjoyed so much of what I had already seen? Why did I not feel any real incentive to continue beyond a sense of obligation to everyone who seemed to care that I keep watching it? How could so many other pro-wrestling fans veraciously consume so much pro-wrestling from so many different promotions with such ease? What do they have that I just...don't?

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V.

It's usually around this time when I think, maybe I’m just not a “real” pro-wrestling fan. And if that’s the case, why do I have a website and a podcast dedicated to it? Why did I work so hard and care so much about talking with Mick Foley and Steve Austin? Why do I still look forward to every new episode of Raw and Smackdown, and why do I enjoy all the endlessly repeating debates between mainstream wrestling and indy-wrestling? Seems a bit strange that I would have created The Work of Wrestling if I’m not really a wrestling fan, right? What in the blue hell is going on?!

I think the answer is that I am definitely a pro-wrestling fan, but I am also a human being.

I find uncertainty to be one of the more natural components of my existence as a human. Every problem I've ever faced, be it internal or external, begins with a form of not knowing. It is only through a sustained effort to know that I arrive at something resembling certainty or comfort. Even then, time bends that sense of certainty by introducing new, previously unknown stimuli and circumstances into the formula of my existence.

I'm by no means indecisive in my daily life, but things change, and I have to change with them. 

That's not bad. That's normal.

A television show I once hated becomes a television show I now enjoy. A person I once admired becomes a person I now avoid. A wrestler I once considered the greatest of his generation becomes a figure of unfulfilled potential. An indy promotion goes from being everything I want to a bill I can’t justify. 

This ebb and flow reveals to me that certainty doesn't quite exist (which is not the same as truth not existing). All that seems to exist is my own experience of my life as a stream of experiences (until it one day ends), and that stream contains some generally consistent likes and dislikes, but it also contains an inability to feel as secure in my specific fandoms as others appear to be. Isolated articles and podcast episodes and Tweets that express a particular like or dislike exclude how that like or dislike evolves - even over a relatively short period of time: like one month.

The hyper-opinionated, gate-keeping pro-wrestling community isn't necessarily to blame for this specific uncertainty. I've had this experience with all of my interests. My entire life, I've been surrounded by people who seem to love more passionately and more actively and with greater ease, and I've watched with bewildered eyes as their love manifests in pure, simple joy or an encyclopedic knowledge or the diligent creation of their own art in their chosen medium. 

And yet, despite my inability to operate in a similarly completionist way, I've always known that I could understand and explain that art better than most. I’m not sure how or why that’s the case, but it is. It would make more sense if I was a completionist or lazy. 

After many years of struggling with that quality of my nature, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more worthwhile fights to be had.

I’ll just have to get comfortable with the in-between; a pro-wrestling fan who respects but isn’t really emotionally invested in modern indy-wrestling, and a writer and a podcaster who writes and podcasts about wrestling but who isn’t really a wrestling journalist (and not because I look down on wrestling journalists, but because I genuinely am not whatever that is and I don't even know how to be that).

I’ll remain the guy who silently notices the other guys clink their “Too Sweet” fingertips together, and then writes an essay about it.

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It would be too easy for me to work you, the reader, by ending on a transparently empowering claim like, “I’m going to be my own kind of pro-wrestling fan from now on, and you should too!” That would be a dishonest "happily ever after". What I’ve discovered in writing this has less to do with exorcizing some demon, and more to do with refining how I articulate my experience of wrestling.

The goal in doing so is not to elicit sympathetic or complimentary comments. The goal is to reach out to you through these words, inspire a feeling of recognition within you, and ignite the fire of your consciousness in a way that a Tweet never could.

Let that be our secret handshake.

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