Apr 172011

After reading TrACDC’s piece on derby being the catalyst that ended her marriage I felt compelled to tell my story. Roller derby had in fact saved my marriage. Well . . . we weren’t married then, but it did save my relationship.

Oliver and I moved to Santa Cruz only about six months after we started dating over seven years ago. He had lived here before, as well as in Humboldt and was a tried and true cold-water surfer. I quickly adjusted to waking up alone most mornings, the smell of neoprene and the taste of sea salt every time I kissed him.

He loved surfing. I was jealous. Not that he was spending his time away from me, but that he had passion and a hobby that was all his. Surfing in a way completed him as a person. After he would come home from being out in the water he was always so happy and content. Even if it was a crappy day with small waves, he still loved to get out in the ocean and paddle around. It brought him true happiness and balance.

The first time I saw him surf I was completely blown away. His body was fluid and agile. He almost danced up and down his long board with such grace that it made a ballerina look clumsy and uncoordinated.

WTF life? Where was my passion? What was my talent? This surely had to be some mistake.

Oliver had made surfing look easy, so easy in fact I was convinced I was the next Laird Hamilton, all I needed to do was go out there and kick ass . . . just like that. No big deal, it’s just the ocean. WRONG.

Just like every other sport / hobby I tired, I truly sucked at surfing. I did not have a natural desire to be out in the cold-ass water on a huge board dodging angry locals, marine animals and thinking about great white sharks. Every time I went out, the anxiety of drowning would consume me. Which is ironic because I am an excellent swimmer. It just wasn’t for me.

Who was I before derby . . .

This is an important part of the story.

I had given up on women. I had a few close friends, but on the whole I had been backstabbed and left heartbroken too many times to want to trust any female friend again.

I was competitive to almost an insatiable degree. I had no outlet and could not recognize this trait in myself as competitiveness. I came across to most people as arrogant, defensive and bitchy with a hint of always-something-to-prove.

I was also pretty convinced at this point in my life I was not good at anything. I had no passion. No drive. Yeah I was a good student and excelled in my journalism program, but it was not enough. Along with my adventures in surfing I had tried: running, basketball, water polo, softball and in high school I pretty much sucked my way through every performance art group I could sign up for. I was crap at it all.

As a result of all this suck, my unsung competitiveness and my lack of faith in the female sex, I had developed a very low self esteem. Our relationship suffered as a result. I was discontent with myself and would take out my insecurities on him. I’m lucky he stayed with me . . . looking back I know I was not a fun person to be around.

And along came derby . . .

I knew from the first second I saw roller derby I was going to do it. There was not a question in my head. I was a derby skater.

Oliver was encouraging. I think he was concerned that I would get hurt (which I eventually did) but he really encouraged me to try it. So I tried out and made it. I don’t blow smoke up my ass very often and when I do I’m usually joking, but I was a natural. I’m not a crazy good athlete who understood the fundamentals of strategy and blocking from the get go, but I was and always have been a good skater.

I come from a modest upbringing, so although I had shown the aptitude for skating at a young age, my mother had to pass on the idea of paying for figure skating classes when I was kid. K sera sera . . .

I was instantly in love with derby. I loved going to practice, learning new things, getting my ass handed to me and really getting in touch with the tough girl inside me that had been trying to breakout for so long.

Oliver was there every step of the way. He would make dinner for me every night and wait until after practice so we could eat together. He would go to every bout, fundraiser and social event. This was not easy for him. Oliver is sorta a shy guy and he would time after time put himself out there and go to these events even though I could tell it would make him anxious. I loved him more for it.

I thought this was normal. It was not until a couple years into this derby thing that I started seeing the turn over in derby widows. Perfectly normal seeming dudes would turn into these controlling, oppressive douchbags. Women would turn into self-confident super heros and their guys could not hang. Lame.

Oliver celebrated my new found inner light. He loved and continues to love everything about it. He has never once complained about me having to go to practice, or any time spent away from home. He has never complained about the money I spend on derby and always gets me derby stuff for my birthday, Christmas etc. Above all he is always there for me. He lets me cry on his shoulder when I have a bad practice or game and encourages me to get back out there and try harder.

I think the pinnacle for me was when I had knee surgery. I expected him to persuade me to stop playing. The one thing that was a hot button for Oliver was the potential for injury. He did not like seeing me with ice packs all the time, hobbling around our apartment questioning whether or not this ache or pain was worth calling the doctor for. Once I tore my ACL and knew I was going to have to have surgery, I thought this was it, the support ends now.

What actually happened was he became my champion. He pushed me to do the physical therapy and to keep my eyes on the prize. He let me vent to him my constant frustrations and fears, and held on to me emotionally while I went through the darkest time in my adult life.

Recipe for Success

One of the main reasons, I’m convinced I’ve had such a good run at derby and my relationship is because the two are not meant to meet and that is the way I like it. Derby is mine and surfing is his. He comes to games, cheers me on, but does not make it about him. Game day is about me and what I need / don’t need and he gives me that. He never tries to tell me what I should be doing out there, but does give me an honest assessment if I ask him.

I know what I have is a fluke. I look around at the girls who I have been skating with for almost four years and only one other girl still has the same spouse she came into derby with.  Now those are some odds.

I appreciate Oliver’s support and I think that is the other part of our magic derby chemistry. I know what we have is special and I try to appreciate him everyday.

When Oliver and I got married last September as part of our wedding vows I gave him a skate wheel and he gave me a bar of surf wax – symbols of our unity through our individuality. Today they sit in a wood box on our mantel to remind us everyday to appreciate and support each other.

Roller derby saved me and my relationship.

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. tracdc@livederbygirls.com

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

Apr 172010

I need this attitude

I want to talk to you about commitment. Roller derby requires, nay demands,  on-skate practices twice a week, dryland strength training on Saturdays and additional extracurricular outdoor skates/workouts in order to be the best you can be-not to mention the derby bonding of going to see other leagues play, going to movies, going to the bars. When I say that roller derby demands this, I mean that it inspires an unavoidable imperative in me to do do do as much derby as I can whenever I can. And yes, it is as obsessive as that. I know this is not a rational impulse, nor, perhaps even an appropriate one to admit to. (However, it is a very very common impulse for us derbies. You know what I‘m talking about!) So, this imperative to go forth and Derby It Up! is a wonderful thing, that is, until it creates in you a monster of guilt.   

When roller derby happened to me, I fell in so far that my husband had to grab my ankles lest I be devoured by derby and move to the roller rink. So when I started to see derby affect my family life, my ever-present search for a writing career, even my desire to be with my husband, I knew I had to do something, cause my husband’s a pretty hot piece.  My all-or-nothing personality immediately lunged me into a depression because my first thought was that I would have to quit roller derby cold turkey. But that’s not reality. Life is not all-or-nothing. So I committed to the incessant, on-

The author in All-or-Nothing mode

going argument with J, my husband, to negotiate going to practices, after parties, away bouts, and outdoor skates as opposed to cooking dinner, going to the zoo, date night, going to his Tae Kwon Do events and generally being available to my family. It is a devilish, tiring task and it often makes me feel sick that I have to work so hard to do this thing, to be Ms Kittie Fantastik. But when I do finally get to practice, all that worry and meticulous calendar work goes away and I put in 120%.  I get to just skate. I get to haul ass in 50-80-100 endurance, hit some bitches with my killer hips, try new things during our scrimmages, talk derby to all the fresh meat skaters and of course spend time with my derby wives, whom I love.  

Me and my hubbs

The easy part is talking about how I’m trying to find a balance between derby and everything else. The hard part is in the doing. My wonderful husband is aware that I often talk a big game about being more present in our family life and missing some of the extra derby events, but when it comes down to it, I falter. Missing any derby practices or events hurts me; it cuts me to the quick. I feel a guilt greater than I thought I could feel for some hobby. I feel that I am letting down my team, I feel that I am showing everyone that I am not as committed the sport or that I don’t care about the team as much as my teammates do or even that I’m not as hardcore about the “Derby Dream” as they all are. I feel that my teammates sometimes look at me and don’t see my struggle but see a woman with a controlling jerk for a husband-cause really, that’s not it. It’s easy for them (and me!) to blame him, but really, it’s not him. He is not making me do this-I have to. I find it common in this game to sport the “stick it to the man” attitude, always cocking our heads saying, “Screw you, I do what I want, you can’t hold me down, I dare you to try!“ I embraced this attitude when I because a derby girl but soon I found this attitude to be not only reminiscent of my teenage years, but also very dangerous. I have come dangerously close to destroying that which I have worked hard to create….for a game. It is important for me to remember that I chose him. I chose him of all people and I love him, he is me-the same, only completely different-and impossible, at that! And then we have Imogen, our daughter, who also is the same, only completely different. These two people are the true things of my life and I cannot let them go for anything. Even though I want to, really want to, do the selfish thing and demand that I get what I want and be left alone, I can’t do it. However, I can demand that I get to have my own hobby and my own time, but I can’t let it consume me to the exclusion of everything else. I know my teammates, my sisters, my wives love me and support me as much as they can, but there are those looks that cut me, those off-hand comments that have bite. They are really no big deal, not an issue. They are just a reminder that I get to set my priorities, no one else. Oh yeah, and I need to grow a backbone.   

So yes, I have to miss practice. But I work my ass off to be good at this game and get my attendance to where is needs to be so I can bout. You got a problem with that? Too bad, I’m really trying not to care.   

Photo Credit: Image taken from “That’s Queen Bitch to You” by Ed Polish and Darren Wotz. Ten Speed Press, 2006., personal family photos.