When it comes to giddy love and silly escapades, answered prayers and crazy dreams, I think I’ve had a pretty decent ride.
And while I wouldn’t exactly label a lot of the things I’ve done items to ever brag about, much less put on anyone’s life inventory, some of my adventures have absolutely fit the definition of a bucket list. That is, experiences or achievements that a person hopes to accomplish before dying, or “kicking the bucket.”
Indeed, I’ve been lucky enough to gaze at the slow motion movement of the Yangtze River in China, and to chant at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, which is as absolutely magnificent in person as I had thought it might be. I’ve wandered down a sunny, snow-capped mountain in the Swiss Alps alongside cattle wearing clanging cowbells around their necks, and meandered through ancient churches in Georgia, a few hours from the Black Sea. Still better, a lot of these overseas trips were for work, so they weren’t even on my dime.
On the domestic front, I graduated from college, which my first generation American parents could never have hoped for for themselves, and then moved to New York City where I lived in the East Village when it was cheap and definitely not trendy. Better yet—despite a few fumbles—I was able to made my living there writing for magazines. Back in Hollywood, I helped solve true crimes as a researcher and producer for a few network television shows. (Oh, and then there’s that movie I wrote. Shameless plug: if so inclined, check it out at www.botsomovie.com and then LIKE us on Facebook). I also married and brought a baby home, although not in that order. And of course, thanks to Ringling Brothers Clown College, I got to buffoon my way across the United States as a professional circus clown.
As of last month, I now have a completely unexpected life event to add to my list.
For the first time ever, I went to a wrestling match.
To be clear, this is not what one would see in a high school or college gym, where participants writhe and sweat on mats, and can get hurt, really hurt, sometimes permanently. What I’m talking about is more of a wrestling show, and come to think of it, not completely unlike the clown bits seen in a circus.
In fact, the first wrestlers of this genre were all about a wink and a smile.
That was in the 1940s and ‘50s, now referred to as The Golden Age of Wrestling. There was Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil and Killer Kowalski, but by most accounts, the undisputed king was Gorgeous George, nee George Raymond Wagner, born in Nebraska in 1915. In the ring, George boasted a unique and much exaggerated ultra-effeminate persona, a character that he only began to create after an okay career as an amateur wrestler.
In fact, George’s “gorgeous” career didn’t really take off until he met a savvy Los Angeles promoter who understood the power of clowning.
He convinced George to grow his curly hair long and dye it platinum blond, with the piece de resistance of those locks the gold-plated bobby pins that George named “Georgie Pins.” Much like Elvis and his scarves decades later, George would enter the ring and then, slowly and with a flair all his own, remove several of the pins, which he lovingly tossed to his fans.
George was also the first wrestler to use entrance music, strolling into the show to the noble sounds of Pomp and Circumstance, all the while wearing elegant, custom designed robes and capes with sequins. All of this over-the-top tomfoolery also made George one of television’s first stars, right alongside Milton Berle, Lucille Ball and Bob Hope (who personally donated hundreds of robes to George’s collection). In fact, at his height, George was earning more than $100,000 per year, which back then also made him the highest paid athlete in the world. (You can see George in all of his flamboyant splendor with this clip, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYq_FVXdg84)
The far more modest event I attended—called Shamrock Slam—took place at night in a tired hotel banquet room near a small regional airport. The 200 or spectators were mostly made up of young working class males, many in duck billed caps, along with a surprising number of children, including a redhead with a pixie cut who wore a dominatrix ensemble. I can’t imagine that any of them have ever attended a film festival, dined at a four-star restaurant or made a pledge to National Public Radio, but what do I know?
The performers themselves were a dozen or so wrestlers who are all part of a league here in California called Vendetta Pro Wrestling (find out more, no surprise here, at www.vendettaprowrestling.com). Sanctioned by the National Wrestling Alliance, better known as the NWA, this group of men and women kept my daughter and I thoroughly entertained for nearly three hours with their slapping, stomping and yelling, which were pretty much all well-executed bogus moves (all the while knowing that everyone knew they were faking). The costumes—legions of rhinestones, faux fur and loud colors, so much like the circus costumes I used to wear—were pretty fun, too.
The festivities began with a match starring a tall long-haired man sporting a neatly trimmed beard, and wearing what appeared to be a gently used, church choir robe.
He was also a clutching a large black Bible and called himself The Apostle. Ever so carefully putting down the Holy Book and then removing the ethereal outer garment, his glittery gold wrestling shorts revealed two large appliqued crucifixes, one for each well-muscled calf. Other characters of the night included a preppie wrestler with a white cardigan draped around his shoulders who pretended to daintily sip tea, complete with extended pinkie finger; identical ponytailed twins each unfurling huge Canadian flags, and a plump but athletic woman with garish, heavy black and blue makeup and matching pigtails.
But I had come for Ricky Ruffin.
Ricky, who was shirtless but wore a snazzy lavender suit with matching print vest, has been gently nagging me to come see a show for more than a year now. During intermission, he circled the perimeter of the banquet room, graciously posing for photos with several groups of children and adults. It was clear that the audience knew him and adored him. And when Ricky finally trotted into the ring, prancing and dancing and smiling to Motown music, and then effortlessly flipped his opponent on his back, over and over again onto the floor, the fans went wild. (For the record, a Vendetta wrestler trains to take these kind of poundings by letting the brunt of the fall spread over his entire back, as well as stretching out his arms overhead just as he hits the ground.) Of course, I know Ricky as 27-year-old Roy Bean.
Bean is a man whose daytime job seems to have nothing at all to do with his wrestling persona: he has worked for more than four years with autistic and other developmentally delayed kids and young adults. I’ve seen Bean in action in this arena as well, and here, too, children absolutely adore him. Roy loves both of his jobs, and works hard at both of them.
When Shamrock Slam ended, Ricky/Roy, as well as several other wrestling buddies, came out, still in costume, to greet us. They wanted to know, truly wanted to know, if we enjoyed the show. Politely, they asked us to come again, and they wished us a safe drive home.
Going to a wrestling show was not something I ever thought I would experience, or for that matter, even want to experience.
But I’m so glad I did, and besides, it’s one more check mark off that list.
Thank you for the invitation, Mr. Ruffin and Mr. Bean. Here’s to lives that, for all of us, need to have than a few out-of-the-box adventures; be well lived, and filled with laughter.
What sort of unexpected experiences have you had? Please tell me about them!
In my gauzy grammar school memory, I can still remember him pulling up to the front curb every Saturday afternoon.
He was probably younger than I am now. But given that I was a little kid, and that he was stout, balding and drove an enormous olive green sedan, I thought of him as old. He was, also, always patient and polite, and seemed truly happy to be at our little house.
He was Mr. Muma (MOO-ma), and he was my violin teacher.
For about seven years, panting up our walkway carrying his own case and instrument in hand, he taught my older brother and me—a half hour each, individually, in our modest living room at $10 a pop—how to master this not-all-that-easy instrument. My mother would putter around the kitchen washing dishes or planning dinner, not exactly hovering but always listening, even if the only sounds our bows made in the beginning were scratchy squeals.
Mr. Muma—and he was always Mister; in fact, I can’t even recall his first name—definitely gave us an advantage when it came to our school orchestra ranking. (This, at a time when even the poorest elementary schools boasted full ensembles, replete with holiday concerts.) I never got to first chair because, frankly, I didn’t have the kind of passion that was needed. But by middle school, I was good enough to sit in the first chair section, and later, Mr. Muma told me I had a terrific vibrato.
But eventually, I felt like a super dork playing a super dorky instrument, and I hated, absolutely HATED, having to spend time practicing stupid scales, stupid repetitive exercises and stupid classical minuets.
Mr. Muma was pretty upset when I finally quit the summer after 10th grade.
By then, I knew that Mr. Muma had once made his living playing with the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra, and that his wife was a retired showgirl. I also knew that they weren’t exactly rolling in dough; they rented a spartan one-bedroom apartment, and they had never had children.
He told me that he loved me, and then he promised to play for me at my wedding.
I don’t regret the decision to give up violin—and I sort of kept at it a little bit by playing a note here and there in the circus—but what I mostly don’t regret now is that my mother pushed me to take those lessons.
Now, some fascinating new studies are proving that my mom was right all along… more right than she could have possibly known.
For example, an incredibly comprehensive 2013 study by the German Socio-Economic Panel (those with an academic bent can read the entire report at www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.429221.de/diw_sp0591.pdf) has concluded that music lessons for kids improve both cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theatre or dance. The report also says that kids who take lessons are more conscientious, open and ambitious.
That’s the tip of the iceberg.
Here in the United States, researchers at Northwestern University have concluded that the five crucial skills that help us master language are actually exercised and strengthened by music lessons. (If you’re wondering, those components are phonological awareness, speech-in-noise perception, rhythm perception, auditory working memory and the ability to learn sound patterns.) In fact, kiddos in this study who were randomly assigned to music lessons performed much better than those who received other forms of non-musical stimulation, including painting or other visual arts.
The benefits go on, including a 2007 study from the University of Kansas.
Here, a music educator and music therapy professor by the name of Christopher Johnson discovered that children enrolled in primary schools that offered superior music programs scored around 22 percent higher in English scores, and 20 percent higher in math scores, on standardized tests compared to schools with not-so-great music programs. A 2013 study out of Canada came to the same conclusion.
It turns out that because playing music puts a high level of demand on one’s working (or short-term) memory, the sharper that memory becomes. Indeed, the Psychology Today article that articulated this conclusion says, too, that the memory abilities of musicians affects non-musical realms as well, helping them to recall more content from speeches, lectures and soundtracks.
Other studies—and there are several dozen to choose from—show that musicians generally have higher IQs than non-musicians; that childhood lessons slow the effects of aging, and that lessons also enhance both self-confidence and self-esteem.
What’s my conclusion?
Despite the fact that I live in a school district that seems to mostly ignore what scientists are saying, music lessons should never, ever, be “an extra” when it comes to our kids’ education.
For the record, I believe that exposing a child to music lessons is an absolutely essential tool to becoming a terrific adult, one with creativity, imagination and the ability to solve problems in an increasingly complicated world. Thinking about it, perhaps it’s no coincidence that I fell in love with and married a music educator, a teacher who can even get strapping high school athletes to play a mean ukulele.
Mr. Muma, I’m sorry that you never got to play at my wedding.
I love you, too.
Did you take music lessons as a child? Did they influence the adult you are now? And if you never took lessons, do you wish you had? I’d love to hear from you!
Hilary Roberts Grant
Journalist, editor, filmmaker, foodie--and a clown!