Monday, October 15, 2012

Sympathy-Face: how not to greet a retired skater

I recently went to a BDD bout for the first time in months. Much like previous bouts this season, Pelvis had to be there before doors opened to do announcer-things. I therefore became the derby widow sitting in the stands reading a book until the doors opened and the rest of the audience poured in. As Pelvis so eloquently wrote, that's part of the job, and I was happy to show my support. During my wait for the lights to dim I saw a lot of familiar faces, and it was nice to say hello to former teammates and opponents. Then it all went down the tubes when I started getting greetings that opened with and/or entirely consisted of the facial expression shown below. I chose to display it in LOLcat form to spare the look-givers, because they knew not what they did:

Courtesy of
Nine people greeted me like this before the first bout even started. Every conversation followed the same script: "Heeeeeeeyyyyy, so......... how are you doing? Are you ok?" [cue face reserved for the terminally ill]. At first it was confusing (did I do something wrong?), then alarming (do I look sick?!), and then it just got really, really awkward because I kept responding with "I'm fine. Why shouldn't I be??!?!" [cue angry eyebrows and awkward silence]

I know that Sympathy-Face is meant to express compassion. It's reasonable to think that a person who once loved skating probably feels weird when they can't cross the "skaters only" caution tape. Maybe my previous "Looking Under the Blanket" post made everyone think I was going to be perpetually miserable without derby in my life? I mean, sure, I was bummed to go out the way I did, but life after derby has been pretty sweet since then. No need to send flowers or buy me mylar balloons. I'm not dying, I swear.

Looking back, I admit that I was downright rude to some of these well-meaning friends. If I was a jerk to you, I apologize. I was wrong to respond the way I did, and the next time I see you face to face I'll make sure to tell you personally, too. It's just that by the end of the night I had gotten over twenty Sympathy-Face greetings and it drove me nuts.

I understand that greetings like this are well meant. What I need other people to understand is that the meaning doesn't always come across. Here are a few examples of how I've been greeted at derby-related events since my retirement:

The Not-So-Good Way

What you probably mean: I'm so sorry that you're not playing anymore. I know how much you loved it, and it was sad to see you go. I hope you're doing ok, and I also hope that being in the stands tonight doesn't make you sad.

What it sounds like: Wow, you must be so miserable right now - you look awful. Do you think you can handle being at a bout tonight? I hope you can hold on until at least halftime before walking in front of a train with a suicide note taped to your chest.

The Good Way

What you probably mean: It's so nice to see you again. I've missed skating with/against you and I'm glad you're here. 

What it sounds like: I have missed skating with/against you and it means a lot that you came to see us play. I've missed your contribution to the league, but you seem to be enjoying your retirement because you are an emotionally stable individual.

The Really Great Way 
(hug optional)

What you probably mean: I'm really glad you're here. I hope your life outside of derby is fulfilling and I would like to know more about it.

What it sounds like: I'm glad to see you because I have missed you personally as well as professionally. I hope you're happy now that you no longer have to juggle the hard work of balancing derby and your personal life. I care about your life outside of derby because you matter as a human being and not just a skater, and I would like to know the details of your various exploits because I care about you.

Before you think it was a giant awkward-fest, I got plenty of good greetings, and a bunch of great ones. It meant a lot to get those sincere hugs and high fives, believe me. Of course being at a bout is weird and a little awkward when all of your friends are skating/working and your knees hurt because you've been sitting in an oddly-shaped plastic seat for five hours. Still, it feels a lot more awkward when everyone is looking at you like you're bleeding out on the sidewalk after a particularly nasty car accident, and none of them want to be the one to tell you that no one can save you.

I was about to end this post here, but I was reminded about a certain bit by Louis CK about divorce that is so apt I had to include it, even at the risk of making this post unnecessarily long. Readers with ADHD (like me) bear with me:
Let me tell you something. And this is important because some day one of your friends is gonna get divorced. It’s gonna happen. And they’re gonna tell you, don’t go “Oh I’m sorry!” that’s a stupid thing to say. It really is. First of all, you’re making them feel bad for being really happy, which isn’t fair. And second, let me explain something to you. Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce. It’s really that simple. That’s never happened – THAT would be sad. If two people were married and they were really happy and they just had a great thing, and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times. Literally zero. Ray Charles has killed more jews than happy marriages have ended in divorce. So if your friend got divorced, it means things were bad and now they’re – I mean, they’re better. They’re not good. Life is shit wall to wall. But they’re better, so you should be happy.
After I watched that bit, a friend of mine told me she was getting divorced. My initial impulse was to give her Sympathy-Face and say "oh hon, I'm so sorry," but I backed up the truck and said "congrats" instead. Her whole face lit up, she grabbed my hands, and she thanked me for being the first person to say what she most wanted to hear. Why am I bringing this up? I think quitting derby is a lot like getting divorced. Bear with me here, because I'm still happily married to my first husband and both of my folks are still together, so if I'm wrong, I'm wrong.

Still, think about it. Isn't derby like an intense relationship? It enters your life, takes it over, brings out the best in you, and utterly transforms you in that one plus one equals two way that a strong relationship does. Then the honeymoon period is over and reality sets in - derby starts to take more than it gives back, and the weird little habits that used to be cute start to get irritating. Then you break up, and you're leaning out the second floor window throwing your old hot shorts out into the rainy street, or you're on the other side of a slammed door next to a pile of your old wheels, or you're shaking hands amicably with your ex after working out which days you can visit your local rink so you don't bump into her during couples' skate with her new squeeze. Finally you're at a bout having that awkward, hands-buried-in-the-pockets conversation with the friends you met through derby, because what else do you have in common now besides talking about your ex?

No one leaves derby because everything is working great. Maybe your body is busted all to pieces and you need to heal up. Maybe your heart is turned inside out and you need to start spending time with people who give more than they take. Maybe you're just really, really tired and you want more time to do things just for you. Hell, maybe you quit because it was a good stopping point and you wanted to avoid all of the previous outcomes. No matter what, you quit because things could only go downhill from here. Isn't that a good thing?

It's the end of the derby season for a lot of skaters in New England, and a lot of your teammates and opponents will be signing divorce papers. Maybe you will be one of them this year, maybe not. I hope it's amicable for everyone, because those throwing-crap-out-the-window divorces suck. Whether you're still derby-ing or not, try congratulating the next skater who tells you s/he's retiring. Ask that former teammate you haven't seen in a while how s/he's enjoying retirement. I'll bet s/he'll thank you.

And honestly, my derby retirement is really, really great. I get to sleep late on the weekends, I smell nice most of the time, I have all my toenails again, my pets recognize me, and I see my husband while it's still light out most days. Getting divorced from derby was hands-down the best derby-related decision I made since marrying derby in the first place. Don't worry, guys. I'm fine.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Thanks. Seriously.

As my dear friend Philzie would say: "whoa boy."
I wrote that post assuming a few people would read it. I expected mainly local friends and derby people from neighboring leagues, but I never expected such a massive flood of well wishes, advice, and personal stories from people who are or have been in a similar place. I didn't realize so many people have felt what I'm feeling now. I guess this is normal? While I'm glad I'm not alone, I'm sorry that so many of you are hurting too.

Thanks to everyone who sent me comments, Facebook posts, and emails over the past week. If I still haven't responded, please forgive me. It was pretty overwhelming to read so many kind words and I don't want to send you thoughtless, rushed responses in return. Most of all, thanks to those of you who offered to sit with me so I wouldn't be alone tomorrow. I was nervous about not knowing what to do with myself or not having people to talk to, but I'm not worried about that anymore. Now I'm just worried about getting enough seats.

I'll write more after it's over, or at least post a few photos. Until then I'll stay up late, eat the types of food I could never eat before bouts, and think about what to wear tomorrow. It feels so weird not listening to my pre-bout-day playlist and watching superhero movies.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Looking Under the Blanket.

March 24th, in case you're wondering.
I just bought a ticket to the first Boston Derby Dames bout of the season. Yes, that's exactly what that means.

Updating this blog is taking me a lot of effort, because I couldn't force myself to do it before today. I waited until now for a lot of different reasons. I was too busy with captaining duties. I was too tired. I didn't want to sound like a whiner. I was waiting to have something positive to write about. I wanted to be diplomatic. I wasn't sure what my plans were. I'd update when I was ready. Writing it down made it feel too final. I'm updating today because buying my first ticket to a Boston bout in almost five years feels like a milestone. This is an appropriate moment to get it over with.

(Deep breath)

I'm not bouting this season.

(Yeah, that feels more final already.)

Why? It's so complicated. Last season cost me too much and didn't give enough back. I'll start my recap with the events around my last post. I reached the zenith of my love for roller derby when I became captain of my home team. Some people probably think this is a small goal. What about making the travel team, Dread? Maybe you could shoot for going to Nationals? Hell, go for broke and aim to win the hydra. Sure, those are amazing goals, but I'm not that skater. 

Evidence of one perfect year. This was a tough act to follow. 
I've never been a very physical person. I am prone to illness, injury, and weight gain and I'm a slow healer in all of those departments. While I enjoy skating the bike path and strength training, I don't like sports at all. I'm more the tutu-wearing derby player than the compression leggings type. I joined derby so I could hit people with my butt, and was surprised that playing derby apparently made me an athlete. That's not to say I slacked or only showed up for parties. I loved the exercise and fought my way into derby shape so I could hang with the skaters who had been athletes all their lives. I worked harder than I've ever worked for anything so I could become a good skater, and by the start of last season I kinda almost felt like one. Being elected captain felt like evidence that I had achieved "good skater" status, and I was so incredibly proud of myself for attaining that goal. 

It did not go well from then on. I was no longer freshie mama, and instead I helped decide which skaters to cut during training. The Nuts became the first team to draft a returning skater from another team who wanted to go back to her old team. My co-captain and I were a poor match. I got hurt and then got really sick. I sat on the bench for almost the entire championship bout. I lost the captain election for 2012. If I could have described the worst derby season possible (excluding permanent injury or major illness) this would pretty much be it.

I had hoped that taking my first off season ever would allow me to lick my wounds and find the joy that had been scraped out of me after a year of hard use. I skipped freshie training and gave life outside of derby a test drive. Other than the looming anxiety over what to do when the rosters were due in January, it was wonderful. I luxuriated in my free time, saw my friends, pets, and family more, and learned to sew. My boss remarked that I looked healthier than I had ever looked since she'd met me, and I took barely any sick days all year. I started enjoying work again, telling my husband almost daily stories about the funny things my students did. I was really, really happy.

I agonized over whether or not to skate again when the season started up in January. I didn't want my last memory of playing roller derby to be sitting on the bench shooting pained looks at my announcer husband, but I was frighteningly content without derby in my life. At the last minute I decided to go back for one more season and "just skate." I'd play on my home team, do small committee jobs, never be head of security again, and enjoy the sport I'd fallen so deeply in love with five years ago.

This is where my retired readers are probably groaning. Every skater wants that year. When you're burnt out from doing too many jobs, or you're coming off of a really bad injury or illness, when you're rubbed raw from all the politics and festering slights from years of working with the same people, you think you'll "just skate" and plan a glorious last hurrah of focusing entirely on yourself for a change. Maybe you fantasize about joining another league, or maybe you consider leaving all of your committee jobs except for the one with the least responsibility. I always pictured being one of those wise old vets who chimes in during strategy talks and speaks up if the team forgets the lessons learned when the league was new(er). It was a reachable goal, even if catching up after a couple of months off skates would make the start of the season a pretty steep uphill battle.

I went to my first practice. I was worse than I expected in some ways and better in others. I took it easy in a few drills because of a torn biceps tendon that I sustained carrying my sewing machine around. Then I fell doing a jump I had never tried before, and when I realized that I had re-injured my arm I immediately thought only one thing:

"This isn't worth it."

I think it's safe to claim that I've collected more injuries than the average skater. I've broken my tailbone and my nose, I've torn my medial meniscus and my MCL. I've developed patellar tendonitis in my right knee and plantar fasciitis in my left foot. I've dislocated my thumb, lost both big toenails, and bruised my diaphragm. I've shaved the skin off of my shoulder, calf, elbow, and both hands so deeply that I'll always have wide, flat scars. These injuries have affected my ability to walk, sit, sleep and do my job over long stretches of time in a few cases. Looking back at all of these, I never once got angry at derby for inconveniencing me or risking my ability to function. It was always an inevitable side effect of my love for playing, much like how tinnitus is the price of going to a lifetime of amazing shows. 

This was unexpected, as I had already eaten dinner.
So I took myself off of my team. I knew that there were skaters in the draft pool who would willingly cut off their right arm to play, and would love my roster spot in a way I couldn't anymore. My team had a really sweet surprise party for me and gave me very thoughtful parting gifts. Then I went home and tried not to think about roller derby because processing what had happened was too much for my brain to handle. 

Now it's sorta kinda over? I'm an "inactive" or "non-bouting" skater on my team. This means that I'm still on the team forum and I can participate in team practices if they allow me to go. So I'm not technically retired, but I haven't skated since I sent my "stick a fork in me" email and I still don't know when I will. 

It's funny, but I was borderline elated about being free until I went to Brown Paper Tickets and clicked the "check out now" button. Before buying that single ticket I'd felt more relaxed, more whole, more myself than I'd felt in years. Underneath it all I knew that I had a lot of sadness inside me, but I think I was purposely concealing it from myself because I wasn't ready for it to be real. In an email to a friend today I compared this experience to waking up in the hospital after a grievous injury - relieved to be out of danger, with an IV to dull the pain, but all the while knowing that my missing legs are hidden under layers of bandages and blankets. I put off surveying the damage as long as possible because it was just too hard. Today I looked under the blankets. Now I can finally see what I've lost.

I can still be involved with my team by helping out and skating at practices if they'll let me. I could be involved with the league by volunteering my time. If I want derby back in my life I could try out again and hope to be drafted onto a team. The thing is, right now those ideas all seem as absurd as trying to strap skates onto a pair of legs that have been amputated. It's almost like I have some kind of weird reverse phantom limb syndrome. My skate legs are there, but I don't feel them anymore. Instead I just see the stumps and feel the raw edges of wounds.

Why is derby like this? Most retired skaters I know act a lot like veterans of war - hurting, broken, and haunted. Most don't feel like they can function in the derby community now that they're no longer in combat on the track. Coming back to manage, ref, or work on a committee is too painful, or those doors are closed to them against their will. Many even develop a genuine hatred for what the sport has become, even though in many ways it's exactly what they dreamed of when they were new. Why does this happen? Where can true veterans of the fastest growing women's contact sport in the world go for support after they wheel themselves out of the memorial hospital? Which type of vet will I be when the wounds heal?

Like most things, you get out of derby what you put into it. However, no one ever warned me how much I'd leave behind. I put almost all of myself into derby for almost five years, and like a crucible, it transformed me. I've always been a delayed reaction kind of girl, and I'm sure that the transformations will continue long after I go to the bout on March 24th. I'll try to be a better blogger and post my thoughts, because I've only seen a few blogs on this topic past the big, painful "I'm not skating this season" post, and I hope the writing will help me understand what's happening to me as it happens.
Isn't it strange the way joy and sadness look a lot alike?

I'll close this post with an offer, because as you are now so once was I and all that. Wherever you are in your derby career, one day you'll be the one ordering the ticket and trying to find someone to sit with at your first bout back on the other side of the pink tape. If you need a friend to talk to, drop me a line at da.dreadnought (at) gmail (dot) com. We can be there for each other because I'll need some support too. 

May you call your last jam when you want to, not when you have to. May you have the warm arms of a loved one to hold you when you click "check out now." Remember that I'm here if you need me. I like helping.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

New skates = sore bum

I got birthday skates this year. This was a very well-informed, extremely needed gift from my folks and I'm thrilled. They gathered intelligence using my husband and my friend and league-mate Dee, who owns Bruised Boutique, and got me EXACTLY what I wanted. I now have Riedell 965 boots mounted on XK4 DA45 plates (short/forward mount). I can't even begin to say how touched and grateful I am that they did that.

After skating on a slightly larger plate mounted all the way back on my skate for so long, I felt like I was re-learning some basic skating habits last night. At least once it became apparent that my "hanging out and listening between drills" body posture will have to change - I kept tipping backwards and fell on my bum at least once. Thank goodness I remembered my butt pads this time.

The plates are nicely maneuverable and snappy. I'm sure the shorter plate helps, and man, these 45 degree trucks are excellent. I always loosened my trucks as far as they would go before the wheels hit the boot, and even fully tightened these are looser than my old ones. I'll probably experiment with softer cushions to see how far I can push this, because I love wiggly skates.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how easy these are on my feet given their newness. I hope this comfort lasts - I'm always suspicious of insta-comfort boots and their long-term fit. However, my friends who wear these boots have all said that they don't stretch like crazy, and the padding inside doesn't smoosh and flatten out, leaving too much space. Fingers crossed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Nom nom nom - birfday!

It's almost that time again. I'm looking forward to once again stretching out my birthday fun into a week-long excuse to eat cupcakes for every meal while I simultaneously demand to be fed freshly made popcorn "because it are mah birfday." I am also allowed to use run on sentences when my week-long birthday festival is being celebrated. You can't tell me what to do, and you are not the boss of me.

I'm like a giant eight-year-old about my birthday. I will never grow out of this.

Because it are my birfday on the 15th, this means I'll be missing practice to celebrate it with my family. I'm working on my birthday present to myself: not feeling EXTREMELY GUILTY about missing a practice and therefore not watching the freshies work on their pack skating.  Normal people don't freak out about things like this. However, I'm sure I've long since established that I'm not normal.

They're learning so much and doing it so quickly that I feel like I'll miss major changes if I so much as blink. I felt like I missed a whole universe's worth of practices when I was away at Nationals. In reality, I only missed one, but when I got back it felt like I'd missed ALL THE PRACTICES. So much had happened over that weekend that I found myself wondering who these strangers were that replaced the freshies I was used to. I don't want to miss the practice where Jane Q. Freshie has a major breakthrough, or Samantha X. Newbie discovers she's a natural at blocking. I think it's because the competition is so fierce this year and the freshies are SO GOOD. The level of skill is off the metaphorical chain.

My friends and family keep reminding me that it's ok to pencil in some "me" time once in a while so I don't go crazy, buy a rifle, and start picking off babies from a bell tower. I forget sometimes that taking care of oneself is a priority because it's necessary. I should get the airplane safety manual illustration on the right tattooed on my forearm so I remember to put on my mask first. If I'm unconscious, how can I help the little kid next to me with the bowl cut?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Someone called me a "super vet" today. I forget that age in derby is like age for a computer - 4 years is actually kind of old.

I wasn't around when the league was founded - I joined after the first bouting season ended. I feel like a babe in the woods, but at this point there are more skaters on the teams these days who started after me than there are who started before me. When did I get to the middle of the pile?

This year, I've watched skaters who started after me hang up their skates. I'm on the coaching committee now and I'm evaluating the incoming class of skaters. I'm going to be captaining my team this season, and I'm ending a multi-year stint on the executive board. Holy crap. Looking at this, I feel like I've really lived compared to some. Not a bad way to start my 4th year of skating.

What kills me are the little things that are now second nature that I never thought I'd master. I can do turning toe stops without thinking about it. I wish someone had told the freshie "me" that I'd eventually be able to do these while reading a practice plan and thinking about my dog. I was so sure I'd never get to this point. It's kind of neat to be here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I have become zee proud mama.

I'm psyched to have been elected one of the co-captains of the Nuts for next season. I love my team and I'm stupid excited about being chosen to take on such an important gig. I'm leaving a number of league jobs I've held for some time, and I'm ready to take on something new.

However, with this comes one major loss: I can't be freshmeat mama anymore. Being a team captain means that I become a coach and I represent my team at the draft. Thus, I'm one of the people responsible for making every round of cuts during freshie training. Since the Mama role is all about shepherding and comforting the freshies through the cuts, the two gigs are mutually exclusive.

Looking ahead to freshie training, I feel a little strange. I'm a Project Runway nerd, so I'll use a PR metaphor. I feel like I've spent two years being Tim Gunn and now I have to become Michael Kors. I used to be the one ushering them towards assessments and watching from the sidelines with my "Go Freshmeat!" sign. I hosted freshie get togethers at my house so I could hang out with the new skaters far away from the stress and sweat of practices. It was an honor to be the official "cheerleader" for team freshmeat. I loved every second of that job and I'll always be grateful that the coaches let me create it.

This season I'll get to coach freshie practices and continue to push them to kick butt during assessments. I'm a teacher to the core, and I'm so excited about being able to run drills and show freshies the skills I've learned from all of the outstanding coaches on the league. That's one of the most exciting aspects of this new turn in the road. I've wanted to do this forever, and I can't wait to start.

However, I'll also have to keep my eye on the freshies who are falling behind. I have to be ready to agree to cut the ones who fall too far. If we'd had cuts when I was a freshie, I'm sure I wouldn't have made it through. It's going to be hard as hell to look for the me's of the group this winter and to tell them and to say "better luck next year."

It's better to leave a job on a high point than to wait until you're burnt out and doing the people you help a disservice. I'm leaving this gig after two memorable, meaningful, and extremely happy years. I'm stepping down when I'm in love with it. Because of this, I'll only take good memories with me.

Next season this job will be in the hands of two great people who will make it their own. Steve pointed out that I'll get to enjoy watching these two wonderful soon-to-be-vets pick up the torch, and that I'll be even more proud to see how they transform the role now that it's their turn. He's right, there's no prouder moment than seeing the people you've watched since they were newbies take on the roles you've passed on to them.

Maybe this will be more like that season of Project Runway where Tim Gunn had to step in and judge the final collections at the last minute. I hope so. I'll always be rooting for the freshies, even as I have to take a turn in the judge's seat.