Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Benoit Tragedy--When Words Can't Do Justice

I haven't been struggling trying to figure out what I was going to say on my blog about the Chris Benoit situation because I don't have much to say. The information provided hasn't answered the question of why, and beyond that, what else is there to talk about? Yes, it's horrific, yes, it's another black eye for pro wrestling, and yes, it's a damn shame that a wife and innocent child were victims. From what I've read on the internet all week, any other commentary outside of that has been speculative, inflammatory, inaccurate, and probably should never have been said.

The Chris Benoit situation, for those who may not know, is this: From what I've read, to the best of my knowledge, 17-year veteran pro wrestler Chris Benoit did not make it to a wrestling pay-per-view show last Sunday night due to what WWE was claiming was a "family emergency," then Benoit, his wife (a former wrestling valet who divorced her wrestler husband while he was feuding with Benoit and went on to marry Benoit) and their son were found dead in their suburban Atlanta home. WWE aired a three-hour retrospective about Benoit Monday night; the next day details were released by the Atlanta police that indicated Benoit for reasons nobody knows strangled his wife with a cord, choked out his son, and then hung himself in his weight room. No suicide notes or any other indicators why Chris did this were left behind, just a Bible next to his wife and one left next to his son. WWE has taken on flak since then for airing a glowing tribute Monday to a guy who killed his family. I can't even comment on that because there's no way I can tell who knew what about Benoit's death when, and even if WWE and its Chairman Vince McMahon knew, it would be hard for me to come down on them for acknowledging one of its greatest in-ring performers because, again, no one knows for sure why he did this, and I can't decide if ignoring him and never mentioning his name on a wrestling broadcast again would be the right thing to do. Maybe, maybe not.

What I do want to talk about is the talking heads that have yapped about this thing all week. McMahon is still running scared from the feds taking him to trial for steroid possession and distribution in the 1990s (he beat the rap), so his main talking point on shows has been that Benoit was just a "monster" and that steroids and roid rage couldn't have had anything to do with this because the WWE has a wellness policy and Benoit passed his most recent test. Yeah, I'm sure the WWE steroid test is really difficult to beat. The fact is, McMahon has absolutely no idea if this was a roid rage incident and he was just trying to clear his name and the WWE before the info about roids being found in Benoit's home came out. I find that disgusting. Instead of saying that we have to wait for the whole truth to be uncovered, McMahon is busy covering his ass. The general commentary hasn't been much more intelligible. Some people are informed, but a lot, like the Fox News jokers, aren't, and almost everything they say comes out sounding like they still think pro wrestling is in its own bubble insulated from the outside world and that's why this horrific scene could occur, never mind that there's no evidence this has anything to do with wrestling. In fact, that was one of my first thoughts when I heard the news--how hard will the mainstream work to make a homicide-suicide by a pro wrestler look like it's wrestling's fault? They already hate wrestling, looking down on it as if only low-class individuals watch it, ignoring the high ratings every single week which indicate it's a widely popular program in any and all demographics. I was afraid they would try to paint this as something only a wrestler or a maniac could do, and that's been the case in some instances.

Or maybe I'm just hoping some excuse can come out to explain the unexplainable. Maybe I'm such a big Benoit fan that I can't believe he could do this without some sort of outside force causing him to snap and not realize what he was doing. I don't own a lot of wrestling DVDs because most of them out there are WWE products and I really hate putting money in the pockets of that pud McMahon. But the first one I ever bought a couple of years ago was "Hard Knocks," the Chris Benoit life story. He was that great to me. Every match he wrestled was hard-fought, stiff, and looked like it hurt him and the man he was working with. He put his body through hell every time out, and watching him talk about his career, you could tell it was what he loved to do and what he thought he was put here to do. The reason that resonated with me was because it reminded me of sports stars and the intensity and hard work they put themselves through to be at their peak physical best, and I respected the hell out of that. And so did the fans. Whether he was playing a good guy or a bad guy, Benoit had a section of every arena standing and applauding every time he hit the ring because they appreciated the fact that someone was going to get their ass kicked tonight. Believe it or not, there's not a great deal of wrestlers who inspire that feeling when they walk to the ring because so many of them are so light-hitting because they're afraid of hurting themselves or their opponents. Benoit wasn't concerned with that. He was concerned with having a match that looked and felt real, and it didn't go unnoticed by those of us who want to see guys display top-notch physical talent.

With that, here's one more theory of what could have made Chris do this other than just an animalistic drive to destroy himself, his family, and his legacy in one weekend. Like every other wrestler who wanted to put on a hardcore, realistic match every time out, Benoit over the years took many shots to and drops on his head. Since WWE--or, in fairness, any other wrestling federation--is loathe to give guys breaks or thorough physical exams, there's no telling how many concussions Benoit may have suffered over the years. He may never have reported any of them, either, since he wanted to be a tough guy and didn't want to be seen as weak for asking to be taken off a show due to headaches. Well, there was an ex-NFL player named Andre Waters who a few months ago killed himself due to feeling helpless from the neurological damage suffered from his numerous concussions. He was 43, but his brain had aged as if it was 73 from all the damage. The work to discover telltale signs of this damage to his brain was put in motion in part from the efforts of Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and a man not yet 30 years old who was a WWE Superstar for a couple of years before quitting due to concussions. He is now pushing for former NFL players to get their heads examined, so to speak, so that they can see if they have issues with their brains and get treatment before it's too late. Nowinski wants to have the brain of Chris Benoit on his table to examine if there are the same symptoms of damage that were there in Andre Waters' brain, the same symptoms that led Waters to commit suicide. Last I read, Nowinski had thus far been rebuffed in his efforts to acquire Benoit's noodle. But if he gets that brain and finds that same kind of damage, at least there may be a small sense of closure and an answer to the question of why. And maybe McMahon will quit running around the country calling Benoit a monster, and maybe some sort of institutionalized health care will be instated by the WWE before McMahon can create more monsters.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Not Your Usual Father Figure, Part Deux--The Interpretive Dancer

My dad picked me up from work this past Sunday in a different ratty van than the one he usually had. I almost didn't recognize it until I got close enough to see the garbage on the dashboard that signifies that it's owned by him. This one was black, and the one he's had the last few years was tan. "This is the van you're gonna inherit when I'm gone," he told me, ignoring the fact that every time he's told me I was going to have his ride when he died, I told him I wasn't interested. He came out of nowhere at one point with, "Well I guess (some woman) ain't gonna be my girlfriend no more. She moved up north, and she thinks I'm gonna drive around everywhere to see her. Shit, she moves all the time like some gypsy." He then tried to remember if the woman was a grandmother or a great-grandmother. Oh, boy. We headed to the near West Side, where he told me we would go for Father's Day to hear some guys he knew play music and to eat their barbecue. He told me all week leading up that we wouldn't be there long and that if I wanted to leave after a while, he would take me home.

So the first thing he does when we arrive at a vacant lot tricked out with an overhead tent ten feet wide for the band to sit under in case of rain or hardcore sun is to roll out his drum set. He never mentioned he was playing. I can go home early, my black ass. He saw the bass player walking around as he drove up and mumbled to me, "Stone cold drunk. He can play, but man, he's a total drunk." I also saw a white guy wearing a "Marithe and Francois Girbaud" shirt, which I hadn't seen since high school. Turned out, he was the lead guitar. And with that, another unique Father's Day was underway.

The set-up was so interesting to me that I calmed down from wanting to be upset long enough to take camera phone pictures and call my girlfriend to tell her I'd be out late. It was a typical empty vacant lot where a regular house could be built. In the middle of the lot was an RV parked sideways so that people could walk up the crudely built wooden patio to a window and take whatever they wanted from the people inside the RV, in this case barbecue, fries, and all the trimmings. The meat was being grilled on the patio outside the RV, but when it was finished, the griller passed it into the RV, and the women inside then prepared plates for whomever wanted some. Ten feet in front of this was one lonely patio table with four chairs that clearly had seen better days, and to the right of the table was a plain wooden bleacher bench. And five feet in front of the table was the "stage," or rather, the aforementioned overhead tarp covering a patch of grass, with another bleacher bench balancing on the uneven turf. Microphones, a speaker, and other electrical equipment also stayed under this tarp, protected from rain (unless it blew sideways). To the right of all this was more vacant land, maybe 100 feet, where people parked and in some cases hung out and drank. It was a simple, unrefined set-up, and at the same time, actually smart and cozy. I also took a picture of the fire hydrant that the local kids had opened up, because the sight of water shooting straight up in the air and little black children splashing around reminded me of days gone by.

I didn't take a bite of food because the guy running things saw me and my dad coming and remarked, "I only got enough food for so many folks, guys!," and that made me feel self-conscious. Also, I had a sub sandwich for lunch and wasn't hungry. Also, the guy at the grill was old, dark, and scuzzy, and I didn't want anything he was cooking. I did have two cans of pop and two cans of iced tea. I sat on the bench off to the right the whole time, acknowledging people who wanted to laugh and converse with a chuckle, but otherwise feeling like I was plopped into some family picnic for a family I didn't know. During a break, the bass player sat down next to my dad with a beer in one hand and a plastic cup with a clear liquid in the other. Double-fisting, I thought. Man, he is a drunk. Someone tried to pour some water into the guy's clear cup, and he pulled away and said, "Why?" "To cut it," the man with water said, whatever "it" was. The bass player relented and let him put as much water in the cup as there was the other fluid. He and a couple of other guys asked me if I played, and I solemnly shook my head. When my dad explains that I tried drums in high school but didn't take to it, I can feel the disappointment every time. And I do fantasize about taking the stage one day on a lark and screaming my lungs out to "Hotel California" or something by Incubus or Audioslave while banging away on the skins (this embarrassing scene shall play out at the celebration when/if I ever win the lottery). But I really think my dad assumed when I got labeled early as "genius" that I'd either be a doctor or lawyer, or idolize him and play music. Chalk it up as another way I failed my loved ones.

Several times during the quasi-concert, a few groups of younger women arrived, some with toddlers. One woman came without a kid and with a very small piece of cloth on for a dress, and my dad stalked over to her and struck up a conversation during another break. I didn't know what he was telling her, but because I know him too well, I felt the need to bust his game by walking over at one point and saying, "Whatever my dad is saying, I apologize in advance." The small crowd giggled. When the band started playing again, the lady took one of the patio seats in front of the band, conversing with another woman seated in the area. This allowed my dad to throw some flirtatious remarks in her direction during his set. Then, off-mike, he called me up to him, and I thought he was going to ask me to get something for him out of the van, but instead he asked me what I said to her while they were talking earlier. When I told him, without hesitation and with a devilish twinkle, he said, "But doesn't she look like your mother?" And for the first time, I looked at her and saw what my dad saw. Slim, tall, pretty in the face, an elegant way of doing her thing--yep, she certainly resembled my mom. "Okay, dad," was all I could say before shuffling back to my seat. I guess that's really his type, or maybe he's still looking for my mom, just like I feel like I'm still looking for her.

Another slim woman appeared on the scene as the sky started to turn dark, but she didn't resemble my mom. She was shorter, for one thing, but also, she seemed high. She rubbed her hand over my back and said "Happy Father's Day!" when she got there, but because I never saw her coming and didn't notice her until maybe five seconds after she touched me, I didn't respond, and she walked off. A few minutes later, I saw her in front of the band near the patio table, and the only reason I knew it was the same woman was the sound of her voice as she sang the lyrics of the blues songs while spinning with her hands floating around in the air as if she was doing an interpretive dance, such as one could interpret "Down Home Blues" and "Stormy Monday." My dad liked this too, because it gave him more excuses to be the hype man on the mike. "We got a dancer out there, go on girl!" he growled. The girl in the straw church hat and thin gray dress and no bra went on, twirling and strutting in her own little world, paying attention to no one and nothing while still occasionally shouting out to no one in particular, "Happy Father's Day!" I just smirked and shook my head.

When the band started playing, there was a guy singing lead who called himself Hurricane, and the Carl Weathers look-alike was fine, blowing his harmonica more than he actually sang. Then he would sit, and they would set the mike up for my dad, who did the few songs his gravelly voice is best for, "The Thrill Is Gone," "Baby Can I Change My Mind," and a couple others. Then an older gentleman with a black shirt with big white polka dots, purple pants, and--wait for it--matching purple socks would take the mike, and I had to stop myself from laughing out loud, not at his attire, but at the fact that he would name his song, the band would play it, and he would completely run off track and lose the rhythm of the song, singing lyrics out of place when the mood struck him. He would interject a little dance at times that looked more like an epileptic seizure than anything else, kicking up dirt with every gyration. "He's 70 years old, so you gotta let him do what he wants," my dad explained later. The band members had to break the songs down and end them on their own eventually because the older man would go on howling and dancing forever if they didn't, and at one point later I saw the man wave his hand dismissively at my dad, so he didn't appreciate this. But at least he didn't take the mic with no clue of the lyrics at all, as one guy did twice. He had a shaved head and needle tracks up and down his arms, and not only did he request a couple of songs that had already been done by the band, but he then kept saying the opening line of the songs over and over until the band ended the act.

As I figured he'd do, my dad drove me to a bus stop when I asked to leave so that he could get back to his gig faster. On the way, he told me why he didn't have a problem with the Interpretive Dancer, even if she may have been high. "You gotta have a woman at home like that, to bring you up when you're feeling down, son," he said. I thought about how I've always hated women who were all happy and loopy and bugging me because I was always low-key and introverted. Then I thought about my girlfriend, who is very even-keeled like me, but I would still describe as happy and loving life. I've got a woman at home (or I should say in Memphis but within the next few years will be here at home with me) who's on a natural high, she just knows when to take it down several levels. Maybe when you don't have the blues, you don't need to look for someone whose head is in the clouds. And maybe if he wasn't always looking in the clouds, my dad could find someone to be happy with and settle down.

Friday, June 08, 2007

And Now, My One Good Deed Of The Year

I will be attending the annual Walk-Jog-Bike-A-Thon tomorrow, Saturday, June 9, on the lake at 31st St. here in Chicago. As I chronicled in My History (5th In A Series), my mother was the victim of sickle cell disease when she was almost 32, and my uncle has been part of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Illinois ever since, helping to raise money. I couldn't attend this event for a long time because I was avoiding all memories of my mother. Dealing with a painful loss can do that, but I went a few years ago as a visitor, and a couple of years ago as an active walker, though I didn't walk very far. I won't walk far tomorrow either, but I will walk, so if you've ever wanted to shout obscenities at me or kick me in the groin or just say hi, here's your chance. I'll be the 900-lb. black guy with the shaved head and white headband. Oh, and if you want to help the cause, visit http://www.sicklecelldisease-illinois.org for more information.