Nov 192011

Dear Roller Derby,

I think we need to talk. We’ve both seen this coming for a while, and it’s time we laid it out on the track. Our relationship isn’t working anymore for either of us. It’s just not the same as it used to be.

When we first met, I was fascinated by you. Some might say obsessed. I spent hours on the internet trying to find out more about you, and still more hours at dark bars expounding on your singular qualities. I wished that I could go to practice every day so that I could spend every minute with you. I wrote my master’s thesis about you. I didn’t even care if you liked me back, I just wanted to be close to you.

And it wasn’t just you, either. You had all these great friends, too. Cool chicks with PhDs or mohawks or both. I made friends with all of them and we swore to love each other like family. You held us all in your orbit like some extraordinary feminist universe. It was exhilarating. No one has ever made me feel so loved or important. And for serious, our physical relationship was un-fucking-paralleled. You knew just how I liked it; rough and a little bit dirty.

Meeting you gave me the confidence to make a lot of much needed changes in my life. And those women gave me a support system like none I have ever experienced. Like sisters. But the truth is that they really just liked me because we all liked you and I’m not very good at sisterhood, anyways. I’m an only child and I’ve always been friends with men, so the delicate rules of feminine friendship elude me. Lately it feels like those women and I don’t have much in common besides you, and we argue over you all the time.

But this isn’t about your friends. And it’s really not about you, either. I don’t want you to think that, because you are amazing and you have changed my life in so many ways.

It’s not you.

It’s me.

The simple explanation is that I got too attached. I wanted so desperately to be a part of your world that I completely neglected other parts of my life. I left my husband and started spending all my time with you. I spent all my money on you, too. I traveled to be with you wherever you were and I bought sexy outfits that I thought you would like. I’m not blaming you, but do you know how much my new skates cost? I’m going to be paying them off for a year.

It was all so good for a while, but lately I’ve been starting to miss the woman I was before I met you. I bet you didn’t know this, but I used to read the newspaper. The New York Times. Not like every day or anything, but at least a couple times a week. I used to write poems and make things, too. I used to knit scarves for people and make dinner and throw parties and go to parties where people talked about art and stuff. And I’m not saying that it’s your fault that I gave those things up, because I know you never asked for anything from me. I gave up those things willingingly.

The truth is that it isn’t you that’s changed. It’s me. I don’t really like the way I act around you, anymore. When we first started hanging out, you made me feel like a total badass, but now I just feel mostly pathetic around you. I fight with people over you. I act like an asshole when I feel like other people aren’t treating you the way they should be. I know it’s normal to be protective of things you care about, but it’s really gotten out of hand. It used to be really easy for me to get along with people, but now it seems like a lot of work.

Worst of all, I’m jealous. I didn’t use to be the kind of woman that got jealous of other women, but I am now. I am covetous of the time they spend with you and their ease with you. It seems so unfair that everyone else gets to have such a great relationship with you when I am trying so hard to make it work. Maybe I’ve just been trying too hard. I know I have.

I feel like I don’t have anything of my own anymore. Every picture on Facebook is of us together. Hell, every shirt in my closet has your name on it. It’s a little bit creepy and too much. I mean, I started a website about you. Clearly, I’m not cut out for this level of intimacy. It’s like I can’t love you and not give up me. I know that must be hard for you to understand because you are so self-possessed, but I’m just not there right now. When we’re together I’m nervous and angsty, and when we’re not all I talk about is you. It’s not healthy.

I’m not saying that we can’t see each other anymore at all. No, roller derby, you are too important to me for me to give up our relationship completely. I’m saying that I need some space. I’m not going to get all dramatic and stop coming to practice or start avoiding you or anything, but I can’t spend all my time thinking about you anymore. I just can’t. It’s not healthy for me, and frankly, I don’t think it’s doing much for you, either. It will be better for both of us if we keep things a little more casual.

Please believe me when I tell you that I will always love you, but I need to spend more time nurturing my other relationships and doing other things. Things that I am good at. We will still be together every Tuesday and Thursday. That is not going to change. But I am going to stop obsessively texting you the rest of the week and trying to make up reasons to see you. I want to take it slow and see how things go. I hope you understand.


Nov 182011

roller derbyI’m all lost in the supermarket,
I can no longer shop happily.
I came in here for that special offer,
A guaranteed personality.
-”Lost in the Supermarket,” The Clash, 1979

I came into derby as a total interloper. I didn’t want to skate and I didn’t want to play, I just wanted to write about the women who skated and played. How things change. Two years later and I barely remember a time before Red Stick. Still, on the days when I’ve hit the wall where my skills and stamina end, I always end up here at the keyboard.

My master’s thesis was about roller derby. As a newcomer, I saw derby as a place where socioeconomic boundaries disappeared and were replaced by neo-feminist camaraderie. I saw it as a subculture in which women weren’t simply added up as parts of a sum, but instead were multiplied and accepted for their complexity.

I still see that. But I also see something else. The architecture of a subculture becomes more obvious the more you hang out inside it, I guess. All those rusty pipes you didn’t notice at first. Now I see that roller derby isn’t just a tribe where women find new ways to compute their value, it’s a tribe in which women’s value is computed in new ways. In other words, roller derby is looking less and less like the  feminist utopia i wanted it to be, because it’s also a place where “traditional female behavior” is enacted in new ways.

When I first came in to derby, I thought the sport and the culture that was built up around it we like this great equalizers that interrupted the problems I saw in typical female relationships. Flattery seemed sincere. Popularity contests seemed like they had been replaced by authentic athletic competition. Prettiness seemed a non-category as far as team value was concerned. The “for the skaters, by the skaters” structure seemed collaborative and non-hierarchical.

Was I naive? Sure, kind of. I was also just plain inexperienced. I’ve been friends with mostly men my whole adult life and boys before that. I’ve never been on a team, joined a club, or had a group of close knit girlfriends for more than a week. What I don’t know about female relationships could fill the internet. What I think now is that gynocentric subcultures like roller derby are very self-consciously trying to create something new and different for women to be a part of, but because we don’t have any experience being part of this new different thing that doesn’t lapse into insincere sorority, we are constantly juking around the norms of feminine behavior.One step forward, one step back. Three quick steps to the side.

So, then, we won’t judge you if you’re fat (as long as you can skate). We don’t care how much money you make (as long as you can pay dues). We don’t care if you’re pretty or ugly or gay or republican. We only care how agile you are, how fast you recover from a hit, and how often you come to practice. That all seems reasonable, though, doesn’t it? It is, after all, a sport.

Only that it’s not just a sport. It’s a subculture. Dick Hebdidge says that members of a subculture share common symbolic style (uniforms), a common ideology (toughness and unwavering loyalty), and an argot (slang). Your inclusion in roller derby, or in any subculture, is based upon how much other members’ perceive that you share in the common style, ideology, and lingo.

That’s sounds kind of crazy, right? Roller derby is a sport, not a religion. There’s no derby dogma. Except that there is. Ideology isn’t bad, it’s just inevitable. People have to feel like they have things in common in order to feel like a group. They just can’t help it.

So, what’s the point, then? If all subcultures operate this way and this is the one we all love, then who cares? Me, I guess, and other utopian idealists. Anyhow, what the fuck am I getting at? Oh yeah, feminism.

Women in roller derby, unlike in mainstream female social structures (like sororities), don’t have to fit the norm. Roller derby takes all kinds, and prides itself on it. We love women with big asses and bad attitudes. We love non-conformists. We lather ourselves up constantly in our diversity. And then what?

And then we develop a whole new very specialized criteria for tearing each other down.

How many times have you participated in a “conversation” about the girl who can’t make it to practice? (She was out on Saturday night, but she couldn’t get it up to skate up on Sunday.) Or the girl who can’t recover from an injury fast enough for anyone else? (Maybe if she spent less time whining and more time skating, she would improve.) Or the heavy girl who doesn’t get low. (What that girl needs is some fucking cross-training.)

Let’s be for real here. I’ve said every single one of these things. I am absolutely an active participant in the construction of roller derby dogma. And I probably would have been content to feel really fucking snug about it, too. Except that I just can’t seem get with the program, either. My real fucking life is always stepping in and throwing shit at me that makes me miss practice. Divorce. Car accident. Job training out-of-state. And suddenly I’m on the other side of the microscope. And it motherfucking sucks.

But let’s be really for real. I do, actually, participate in most of roller derby’s dominant ideology. I’m a hard worker. I’m tenacious. I like speed and aggressiveness and girls in skimpy outfits. I love the sport. I’m in it for sure. So, what’s the realness? The realness is that I skate with a stutter.

If roller derby is a subculture and subcultures share a common language, then roller derby has two. There’s the one we speak and the one we skate. Savvy? That first one, the verbal language, I’m pretty okay there. Actually, I’d say that my ability to pick up the lingo is what has carried me through most of my derby career. The problem is that, as a skater, I’m on the sadder side of mediocre. Which makes me not exactly incomprehensible to other members of my subculture, but still frustrating.

I’m the skater that people watch and think, “Just fucking do it, already.” But just like that kid on the playground stumbling over his tongue as he navigates the sharky sandbox, I would if I could. My skills are limited and there’s not that much I can do about it. My time is limited and there’s not that much I can do about that, either.

I work as hard as I can as I skater when I can. I’ve sacrificed my marriage, several hobbies, several thousand hours, and more than several thousand dollars to roller derby, but none of it’s good enough. On some level, this is really normal for me, and I continue to play because of my deep-seated faith that some day it will click. Everything I’m good at I sucked at for a long time. Even still, it sucks to suck, and it sucks even more to feel really judged for it when it’s all you can do to not judge yourself.

Which brings me back to all that academic shit about feminism and subcultures, which is really why I’m here. I play roller derby because I wanted to be part of something that didn’t reinforce stereotypes of female behavior: bitchiness, cattiness, judginess. I did not become part of it so that I could regurgitate those behaviors in some edgier, more aesthetic way. So, am I going to quit roller derby? No fucking way. I am going to quit being a cunty little bitch, though.

Yeah, I’ve said that before. Well, at least I’m trying. And that’s what I’m going to look for in the women around me. Not as an athlete, or as a team mate, mind you. On the track none of the social shit matters. It’s straight Darwinian. But off the track I’m going to stop looking at the overweight slow girl and thinking, “Get your shit together.” She probably has really good reasons for being slow. Maybe divorce. Car accident. Job training out-of-state. How do I know?

Apr 122011

If you’re a regular reader of the site, you’ve probably noticed that Live Derby Girls are a rare breed. They’re not just writers and they’re not just derby girls. They’re some elusive combination of both. We’re looking for more of these ephemeral creatures. You don’t have to have a golden horn or the ability to poop cupcakes, but you do have to have a solid command of the English language, a love of words and the ability to craft them, a borderline obsession with derby, and a deep respect for deadlines. If you meet these criteria and want to help spread the derby gospel, contact with your ideas and how you think they’ll fit into LDG.

Apr 092011

Learning to Fall

The thing is, we aren’t perfect. And the people who expect us to be are just assholes. We fight sometimes. We backstab and nitpick. We form cliques and break confidences. We mess up. But I hope that we don’t turn away from each other in those moments. Because the moment we give up on each other is the moment we give in to the worst of the myths about women. If we overthrow our derbies because they don’t fulfill our ideals, we’re setting them up for failure. Expecting women to be perfect – to be everything and never fall short – is not a feminist act.

I stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmet and skates, I was all geared up for a happy roll in the soft Florida winter sun.

“You look ridiculous,” my mother-in-law Elizabeth said, smirking. She was all perfume and haughtiness. “I can’t believe you’re going out in public like that. Let me get my camera.”

She followed me onto the sidewalk. I flashed a peace sign to her that I mentally removed my pointer finger from.

The people who expect us to be perfect are assholes. I wish someone had said that to me earlier in my life. I wouldn’t, of course, have believed it, because until recently, I thought that if someone expected you to be perfect it meant they believed in you. I also thought that there might be some possibility of being perfect; the perfect wife, student, bohemian, derby girl. I could have the tattoos and the degrees. I could have the perfect relationship. I thought I could have my pretty pretty dresses and my feminism. But I was wrong.

Before roller derby, I was scared to fall. People who are in control of their lives, who are creating their ideal selves, I thought, don’t fall. But, in derby, everyone gets knocked down. The only thing that people will remember about you hitting the ground is how long you stayed on it.

Letting go, being wrong, and falling down all seem like fairly passive modes of revelation. But in derby, nothing is just passive. Every yielding must be followed by an instantaneous exertion of force. Playing roller derby almost always results in revelation for the women that play it. They learn that they are weak, that they are strong, and more importantly, that they are both things at the same time. They learn that the only way to recover from a fall is to get right back up. They learn that it’s okay not to be perfect or that they already are perfect or that perfect is a fucking scam thought up by the man to keep women with balls in check. They learn not to be kept in check.

Roller derby opens up a space for women to relate to each other as bodies, as women, as concrete or ephemeral things, as bitches or sex kittens or neither or both. The performance of the sport enacts a fluid exchange of energy between the players, energy that can be absorbed, reflected, or deflected. It is an energy which is specifically and explicitly feminine.

Roller Derby Ate My Marriage

I was sitting on the stairs to our attic eating a ham sandwich. I hadn’t been home in days, but Daniel didn’t know that because he had been in New Orleans visiting friends. Professors with tenure and lovely duplexes in gentrified neighborhoods. I had been doing derby. My hair was a maelstrom of sweat and cigarette ashes.

“I can’t watch you do this,” he said.

“Do what?”

“Eat that.” He formed his lips into a flat line across his face.

I stared at him through the thickness of my hangover. I hadn’t eaten pork for years, but I was hungry and tired and it was the only food in the house. It didn’t make sense for him to care about it, anyways. He loved ham and had never been attached to my shaky vegetarianism.

“Seriously?” I asked through a dry mouthful. “What the big deal? You eat swine all the time.”

“You don’t,” he said, “And it means something.”

It seemed like every little something meant everything to Daniel at that point, except the things that mattered. It was okay if I didn’t come home at night, but if I admitted that I had been smoking cigarettes, it was a problem. I could come home with visible hickeys, but I could not eat ham sandwiches.

My therapist, Arelys, listened to me freaking out.

“What THE FUCK? I’m fucking someone else and he’s pissed off because I smoked a fucking cigarette?”

“Tracey,” she said evenly, “When a person is having an affair, I think their partner always knows it on some level.”

“If he knows I’m having an affair, then why doesn’t he fucking call me on it instead of getting pissed off at me about all this piddling shit and being all passive aggressive about it?”

I was defensive. I felt guilty. I was having an affair and I was really mad at Daniel for not noticing or pretending not to notice. I was acting up, and Daniel, my husband and apparently, guardian, wasn’t setting new boundaries. So I was trampling all over the ones that were already there.

Sometime shortly before Mardi Gras, dressed in short derby shorts and a skimpy crop top, I had sat on his lap and daringly (within the context of our sexless relationship) tried to kiss him. With tongue. He playfully slid me off his lap, edging me away with his elbow in a reflexive move that we both knew well. I thought, “He doesn’t want me. He married his best friend.”

Well. Maybe so had I.

I had already been semi-crushing on my derby wife, the magnetically athletic and sincere Rock Bottom, for a few weeks, but something in that rejected kiss solidified the already growing wall between Daniel and I and broke down any last resistance I had in my pull towards her.

After a long Fat Tuesday in Mamou, Rock and I found ourselves slow-dancing to a neo jug band in Layfayette. I leaned into her broad shoulders and rested my face in her hair. She drunkenly, but flirtatiously pushed me away and said, “You cannot make out with me. You’re married.”

I was a gallon of bourbon into the night and cocky as all get-out. “Girl, I don’t need to make out with you. A bisexual belly dancer in the bathroom just gave me her phone number.”

We danced until the Saloon closed. Then we half-followed a drunk on a bicycle home until we were sure he wasn’t going to fall down in traffic. We pulled over a dozen times that night, in parking lots, fast food drive-thrus and on the side of highway, alternating between making out and her patient explanations that she wasn’t into me. Fine, I thought, I could accept that, but it was fucking Mardi Gras and my marriage was deteriorating and she was pretty and I was going to have a good time. And, as I accidentally confessed, I adored her.

When she dropped me off at my house, I said, “Kiss me goodnight.”

“No,” she responded. But she did it anyway.

It was pretty confusing on all counts. I didn’t actually feel any differently about Daniel, meaning I didn’t love him any less. But we hadn’t had sex since our wedding day, almost a year before. He was never much of an instigator and I had given up. Why had I given up?

I looked back at every dalliance I had had in the past decade carefully, real or imagined. All women, no men. Not women like Rock, though. It was all leggy model types and typical beauties. No broad shoulders. No baggy basketball shorts. I had always been attracted to the kind of girl I wanted to be, a sexy feminine ideal.

I jogged past my derby friend Tricky’s house early one morning. She was awake, padding around in sweatpants. We drank coffee on her porch.

“I think I might be gay,” I told her.

She snorted. “Wouldn’t that make everything easier?” she asked.

“No, actually, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. I love my husband.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but so then if you were gay then this whole thing with Rock could be like not his fault and not about your relationship. It could just be about some fundamental biological need you have to fulfill”

“That doesn’t sound easy,” I said.  It sounded terrifying. More than terrifying, it sounded wrong. It sounded like if I decided to be gay that I was somehow going to be able to get away with duplicitous and deceitful behavior and ride off into the sunset with my new sweet girlfriend on the back of a unicorn on a sunset of rainbows. Like Daniel wouldn’t be pissed or hurt or fucking devastated because I had some fundamental biological need.

I don’t think that many people think of me as a person who represses her needs and desires, but in reality, I was. I spent a lifetime seducing men because they wanted to fuck me. And when I did give in to my deviant desires to be with women, I found women to fuck that I also wanted to be. Harvard graduates with delicately long torsos and spunky geek rock girls with pierced nipples. With Daniel, I found a way to avoid the responsibility of seduction and a way to embody my ideals. All of them. I got to be hot and tatted up and also married and totally respectable.

I got to be everything, the ineffable perfect that the assholes say is possible. And it wasn’t enough. Because I realized that I didn’t want to move to New York or Boston and be the quirky undersexed wife of an academic. I didn’t want to live my life in an ivory tower in the suburbs of cool. I wanted to stay in Baton Rouge. I wanted to play roller derby, eat ham sandwiches, get a dog, and have a relationship with someone with whom I felt mutual. Someone with a vagina.

Even after these realizations, though, it still wasn’t clear to me that my marriage would end. Daniel and I, I thought, were bigger than these petty superficial structures. He didn’t want to have sex with me, so surely he would be happy to be relieved of the burden. We could live out our lives as best friends in some polyamorous utopia. We might not have been soul mates in the way I had planned, but surely we would never be separated.

“Are you going to divorce me?” I asked him a few days after our come-to-Jesus, relationship-shattering conversation.

He looked at me incredulously. “What would you do, Tracey?” he asked.

Not that. I wouldn’t have divorced him, not ever, no how. Not only was he my best friend, but he was also every ounce of proof that I ever had that life could be ideal. He was all things to me, and I wouldn’t have given him up for every blonde co-ed on campus. I didn’t realize that I already had.

Because Daniel didn’t want to be the husband of a lesbian. He didn’t want to have some idyllic alternative lifestyle set-up. And as he would point out to me later, those sorts of things are generally agreed on in advance.

“You signed on for a very traditional marriage, Tracey. That was what you wanted,” he told me when he called to tell me that divorce papers would be arriving. “And then you got bored. You can’t just decide on your own that we’re going to have some sort of open marriage. Those kinds of arrangements are made to suit the needs of both partners, not just one.”

He was right. It was another symptom in the wanting-to-have-it-all syndrome. I was the one who cheated and I was the one who lied. I was the one making out with derby girls in the living room while he slept. I was the asshole. But it wasn’t, as he supposed, because I was bored. I had been totally fucking confused. All the things I thought I wanted were chimeras and all the things I actually wanted were totally taboo.

In one of our last conversations, Daniel said to me, “I still believe in you.”

And I was so relieved. Because I thought that I would die if someone didn’t believe in me. And that someone had to be him, because he was just so ideal. And if someone who is pretty much perfect believes in you, then you can’t be that bad, right?

The answer to that question is complicated. On the one hand, it is yes, I am that bad. On the other hand it is a question mark, an interrogation of that belief. Daniel’s belief in me was based on his sincere faith that I could be ideal and believed in. And he wasn’t being an asshole. He just didn’t know that I was starting to think that this whole idea of possibly being perfect was, in some inherent way, assholic.

Because the very real truth is that I am not perfect. I am gay. I am not going to be able to fit into the mainstream. I am not going to get to have my girlfriend and my tattoos and my pretty pretty dresses and my young hot husband and my heterosexual privilege, too. I am going to have to make choices. And what I choose is blondes in basketball shorts and Baton Rouge.

What I choose is in the context of roller derby. I chose a version of myself that falls down, that sometimes does not commit. That gets hurt in very real ways and hurts other people. I choose an edition of myself that is not fucking perfect. It’s not even that cool. But it’s real and it’s resilient, and my team gives me a place and a way to make that choice every single day if I need to. But it’s a me that cannot be reduced to roller derby, even though it might be a product of exactly that thing.

My life now is not what others might consider ideal. I’m divorced. I have a girlfriend. I don’t have a picturesque Spanish Town porch swing and I don’t wear dresses anymore. I also don’t let men think that I might want to fuck them to flatter them or to make myself feel pretty. Frankly, the desires of men disgust me. I hate their tiny dicks and their giant egos. It’s the women in my life that make me feel beautiful despite being deeply flawed. I feel beautiful when I can knock over a woman half my age and twice my size. I feelbeautiful dancing all night with my team after skating hard all day. I feel beautiful being loved a woman who is willing to put me on the ground to teach me a lesson and who will cheer when I get back up.

Men? In my sport, they’re just the refs.

Their job is to count the points and stay the fuck out of my way.

This is from my master’s thesis “Beating the Red Stick: My Love Affair with the Red Stick Roller Derby”. It is part cultural history of the sport, part ethnography of the girls on my team, and part memoir. I’ll be spending the next year or so working it into a book. I am always interested in the ways that roller derby has changed women’s lives. If you have a story, well, first of all you should probably be writing on LDG, but secondly, I’d love to hear from you.

Also, the article I quoted from at the beginning of the piece is Villainelle’s “This Feminist Darkness” on LDG. Read it.