The Joy Menu #10: The Undertaker
Your intrepid author tells a story, gets beaten up, and passes you the buck. (An 8 minute read).
Today I want to tell a story.
I don’t know how it relates to creativity; I’ll let you decide at the end.
Here’s how it goes.
When I was young, I lived in a condominium complex filled with kids. One of them was named Mark, and, like many pre-pubescent boys in the complex, Mark lived alone with his mother. Since his mother worked a lot, Mark (like many of the other kids) was free to roam the neighborhood looking for playmates—most days, most times, and at most hours.
Mark was also large and sensitive, socially inept, and not very bright.
As my preferred method of neighborly engagement was to sit backwards on the front room couch, scanning the streets for who’d recently gotten a remote control car (it happened surprisingly often in suburban Orange County in the early 90s), the trusty family dog (Biscuit) watching for cats besides me, I was privy to Mark’s activities, and would often see him coming from blocks away.
I did not enjoy playing with many of the neighborhood kids, and I especially did not enjoy playing with Mark. When I’d sense that his playtime trajectory was aimed at our house, I’d leap off the couch, sprint toward my room, yell “If anyone asks I’m not here!” to my mom, and hide on my bed until the attempted intrusion into my introverted reverie passed by.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Mark. As a person, he was fine. But for all his potential good qualities (which I’m sure are now fully expressed, 30 years later), Mark’s primary obsession—if not only interest—was the WWF. The World Wrestling Federation. And since what he lacked in confidence or wit, likeability or grace, he made up for in girth and aggression, he always (only) wanted to play a game colloquially called “Let’s Play Professional Wrestling!”
And the game “Let’s Play Professional Wrestling!” went like this: You’d stand still and be Jimmy “Supafly” Snuka; he’d be the The Undertaker and would explain how he’d beat the shit out of you the night before. Then he, Mark, The Undertaker, would reenact the body slams, closelines, pinfalls, and tombstone piledrivers which he, The Undertaker, had enacted to achieve his incredible win at WrestleMania VII (or VIII, IX, X, XI, The Royal Rumble, WWF Championship, etc), or whatever his most recent triumphant bout had been.
I was always Jimmy “Supafly” Snuka. Or King Kong Bundy. Or Giant González. I always lost. Which is to say: I—pathetic, scrawny, ill-prepared Joey “Not-so-fly” Rubin—always got the shit beat out of by him, Mark, The Undertaker.
Professional Wrestling may not have been real. But Mark’s “Let’s Play Professional Wrestling!” 100% certainly was.
Which brings us to the afternoon Mark sent me to the ER.
After a lovely morning of petting the dog’s back while my brother played Super Nintendo behind me, I saw Mark climb out of his mother’s beige Honda Civic and begin his springy march not toward his house (on the other side of the complex) but toward our house, and before I could squeeze myself away from the dog and make my dash down the hall, Mark’s eye—across the freshly tarred neighborhood fairway and through the thin glass of our front room window—caught mine.
I was rude, but I wasn’t that rude. The gig was up: I would have to play.
We relocated to the field which ran between his row of condos and my own. Really, it wasn’t a field, but more of a patch: a patch of leftover land, covered haphazardly in uncut grass and ruddy weeds; large enough for impromptu games, but not large enough to house another condo unit, a full parking area, or even a carport.
(It also famously hosted the dead carcass of a neighborhood cat which Biscuit found one foggy morning on her walk; sniffing out the steaming cavern which had recently been consumed by a local coyote in the night. Such was the hallowed ground upon which we played. But I digress.)
We stood on that patch of unkempt weeds, Mark and I, not quite face-to-face, but quite arm-in-arm. Mark narrated the event highlights, which I did not need to hear, and I stood still, as I’d learned to do, ready to be manhandled and manipulated. Like many before me, I’d convinced myself that if I just lay back and didn’t fight, the experience would soon be over, and I could go back to my morning of rest and comfort and benign neighborly surveillance.
Then, channeling the force of Mark William Callaway (6’10,” 309 lbs), aka The Undertaker, aka The Punisher, aka The Master of Pain, Mark (5’0” 143 lbs) lifted my entire body (4’2” 53 lbs) high above the condo-tops with the careful aplomb of a pitchfork-wielding farmer lofting a bail of hay, and then slammed me onto the ground.
For a millisecond, all was well. And then my head exploded in a wild siren of searing pain.
I had been stabbed. In the brain.
I rose to my feet, hand cupped over an ear, and ran—faster than from a front room couch—straight into the house, down the hall, and to my father.
Who took me, immediately, to the ER.
It turned out that a single bladed weed had entered my ear canal and split my eardrum in a perfect crescent slit. I could hear. But only for the miracle of precision; that the weed was so strong, so stiff, and so straight, it had managed to pierce my eardrum perfectly, even surgically, without tearing, rattling, or collapsing that hollow bulb in on itself, which could have meant permanent damage, hearing loss, or worse.
The doctor told me to stay off my feet, stay inside, and to stop wrestling.
It would heal soon, and on its own. If I let it be.
What does this have to do with creativity? What ingrown hair of wisdom can I extract from this fleshy flank of narrative?
Maybe that I was a sensitive kid, who preferred daydreaming over wrestling? That I learned early on the cost of not setting boundaries around my desires? That in life we are lucky as well as unlucky (thrown atop the weeds of suburban existence, but saved from permanent injury by the sturdiness of those same weeds)? That imaginative play has risks? To never be passive in the face of a compelling narrative?
Or maybe not. Maybe I just wanted to write something today, on this sunny, fresh Sunday. Perhaps I just wanted to offer this as creativity.
Or maybe this weekend, you can do the creative work of making it wise. Or not. You can also just read the story.
I trust you to choose best. You’re all capable creators in your own right.
Until next week—
onward to creative joy,