Monday, June 27, 2011

Where to Draw the Roller Derby Line

What kind of rollergirl do I want to be? What kind of rollergirl can I be?

This last weekend I joined 120 other Alaskan/Canadian rollergirls for a boot-camp thrown by the Rage City Rollergirls. Ten gals from Juneau Rollergirls went up. None of us knew what to expect, and with our very first roller derby bout quickly approaching (next Saturday!) we were nervous.

The bootcamp featured workshops run by three rollergirls from down south. Two of whom are some of the most famous rollergirls in the world: sisters Psycho Babble and DeRanged, who led the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls to victory in last year’s championship. Watching them skate was like watching Michael Jordan slam dunk over and over again. Their speed, agility, and power was unbelievable. And here we were, just trying to keep our feet under us.

And when they talked about derby, they talked about a sport of extreme athletes and extreme competition.

For one of our hitting drills I was paired up with one of the other Juneau gals, a gal who is on my team for our upcoming bout. We took a break for water and she said she thought we were doing well, but we hadn’t knocked each other down. I told her that I guessed I didn’t actually want to knock her down - I didn’t want to hurt her before the bout.

“Well I’m hitting you as hard as I can,” she said.

We went back on the track and continued to try and block each other out of bounds, cutting our skates across so that our full bodies slammed into the other skater, thigh to thigh, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder.

DeRanged was running our group of skaters and paused the drill to pull us all in to give us a little pep talk. She told us that we shouldn’t fool ourselves, we’re all here for blood. And if we weren’t there for blood? Then maybe we shouldn’t be doing derby. So when we hit each other, we should mean it. And I thought to myself Not me. I’m not in it for blood, am I? I don’t want to hurt someone.

I don’t know. I really enjoy derby. I like the physicality of it, I like the team aspect, I like that there’s a campy side with the names and outfits, and I do like that it pushes me to be an athlete. I like getting hit and I like falling down. I like it because sometimes I don’t fall down, and when I do, I get right back up. I like the challenge of that. But does that mean that I’m in it for the blood? I wouldn’t want someone to hold back on me, I would want someone to hit me as hard as they could, so why aren’t I hitting as hard as I can?

Watching DeRanged, Psycho Babble and Helen Wheels skate, it was clear that they are skating on a level that I will never achieve, and don’t want to. They’re skaters who have dedicated their lives to derby.

We met several of the Rage City Rollergirls’ skaters as well. Plenty of those women skate on a level that I consider extremely proficient. But watching them skate with the guest coaches, even the best of those skaters was clearly several degrees below them. So do I think I’ll ever skate on a top ten ranked team? Hell no. What about even a team like Rage City’s All-Stars? Probably not. But a B team? A home team? A team in it for nothing but fun and exercise? Yeah. That’s where I belong. Not to say that I don’t have some skill, because I do. This weekend I gained a lot of confidence in my skating and could actually feel myself developing greater strength and agility.

But this weekend I realized that I just don’t have that killer instinct, or that all consuming competitive drive, to become a top tier skater. I’m really looking forward to our first bout and I’m looking forward to continuing to bout, both within our own league and with those other Alaskan and Canadian teams we met at the boot-camp. I’m going to work on my skills, continue to push myself, but at least I now have some idea of where I’m going to draw the line.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Growing Old and a Defense of the Midwest

There are loads of things to write about, so why haven’t I written about any of them? The only thing I’ve felt like blogging about lately has been my search for loafers. LOAFERS.*

A giant lilac bush.

What I should be writing about is my recent visit to the Midwest. My father and I went for a week and a half to see my grandmother and to visit a bunch of my college buddies. I love the Midwest. I get angry at people who badmouth it or refer to the center of the country as “the fly-over states.”  I come from the most beautiful place on earth (Juneau, Alaska) and I find tons of gorgeous landscapes in the Midwest: lush, green rolling farm lands dotted with big old barns and silos; the red and orange limestone cuts you drive down through to cross over the Mississippi, the river wide and ranging; the broad expanse of the Great Lakes, inland seas; the small ponds and forests full of giant, sweet-smelling lilac bushes and silvery birch, echoing with the sound of frog trills; the small run-down towns with old store fronts, faded art-deco facades and peeling 50s billboards.

But of course, we didn’t visit to sight-see, we were there to visit people, most importantly, my grandmother.

Next month she’ll be 94. She lives in the Northfield Retirement Center in Northfield, Minnesota, a facility in which she’s lived for the last eight years or so. It’s the kind of place where you can start out independent in a little apartment, and then as your health fails they have increasingly intense assisted living sections. The people there are extremely friendly and many of the workers have been there since the day my grandparents moved in.

Grandma is currently in the nursing home section and has been there for a year and a half. A year ago my grandfather died, leaving her the last living member of her generation in her family. She told me then that she was ready to go. And yet she’s lived another year. This visit was a hard visit. She’s no longer able to move without assistance and spends her days napping or sitting in her wheelchair in front of the large television with the other residents.

Her Alzheimer’s has progressed significantly in that she seems to get lost in her sentences and can no longer draw up memories from the past when questioned. I still want to know her, know about her life, but discovered that, unlike in past visits, when I question her now her only answers are “I don’t know” and “I can’t remember”. It was frustrating for both of us. I didn’t want to make her feel bad because she couldn’t answer my questions and I didn’t know how to talk with her without asking questions. It took several days for us to figure out how to communicate in a way that felt like it worked for everyone. My father and I would sit with her, discussing whatever topic came to mind, and here and there she might chime in. Mostly we would pause to check in with her, make sure she was still happy listening or find out if she was tired and wanted a nap.

A year ago, after my grandfather’s funeral, I spent some alone time with my grandmother. Her mind was slipping, but she was still there. We had a very personal discussion and I came away upset, a total wreck even. But on this year’s visit, I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t upset, I was accepting. I think part of the reason I got so upset a year ago was because I could tell then that she was leaving us.

I love her dearly, but I don’t want to grow old like my grandmother. Her departure is long, slow, and drawn-out. She’s had, from what I can tell, a long loving life, but the way it is ending makes me afraid to grow old.

*Why has the world switched over to ballet flats? Loafers are the greatest shoe of all time: they slip on, you can wear them with or without socks, and they’re both casual and work appropriate. I’ve been searching for a new pair of cute, inexpensive loafers for about six months now and am starting to get pissed.