My pink vinyl bag has a laminated ID card on it with my alias: Mich The Masher. The bag fits my knee pads, elbow pads, wrist pads and mouth guard. The shiny black helmet (now I am wishing I bought the pink one) with the skull stickers goes in a separate black mesh bag. The black leather four-wheel roller skates -- weighing in at three pounds each -- I carry in the green bag to weekly Derby Lite classes I have been taking in the Chicago suburbs since January.
At 53, I am a roller derby girl.
During our first beginner derby class, my friend Sue, aka Schmidtylicious (though she wanted to be Sue Nami, you can't duplicate registered names and she nixed Sue Man Group) and I laughed so hard our plastic mouthguards filled with spit. So we had to take them out and wipe them on our shirts. Like fifth grade boys.
"You are crazy, you will get hurt. Why would you do something like that?"
My sisters, friends, students and coworkers offer tongue-clucking reminders that I am too old for roller skating. I ignore them. After a hiatus of more than 40 years, I am quad skating on a flat track rink in a group that uses the tagline, "Roller skating for fun and fitness for women old enough to know better." Having graduated from beginner to intermediate, I now skate Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. after a full day of work. No one there knows what I do in the day. No one there cares in the least.
There are no extra credit points to earn for my career climb, no salary bonus, no networking opportunity -- unless you call making friends with Novacaine, After Bertha, Gladys Friday, Mocha Mama or Knocker Blockoff as networking. A woman in the class about 25 years my junior has a tattoo on her calf of a huge face of someone who looks like Che Guevara or Geraldo Rivera or Russell Brand, but I cannot be sure. You can burn 750 calories an hour in class.
I have always been an accidental athlete, never really good enough to be on a competitive team in high school for any sport and certainly not college. I ran in my 20s to fit into bikinis, I walked in my 30s to lose baby weight. I swam in my 40s to zip my jeans. And now in my 50s I am so derby.
The Women's Flat Track Derby Association has 117 American leagues as members. Internationally, there are an estimated 1,000 leagues in 36 countries, and growing. For women like me derby beats the heck out of yoga for reasons that have more than a little to do with the crazy outfits and the made-up names.
When I am in the vinyl-floored rink transformed from an abandoned warehouse, I am not a mother, sister, ex-partner, college professor, colleague, author, journalist, lover, cancer-survivor or ex-wife. I do not have a job, three sons, a mortgage, a complicated thought or even my full baptismal name.
I do not have any responsibility other than to avoid falling down the wrong way and to keep skating. These pink plaid short shorts I wear over pink fishnets have no pockets for my phone so no one is texting, calling or complaining to me -- not any of my sons, students, anyone I work with, anyone I work for, someone asking me to dinner. I am free and kind of punk. I cannot tell my chiropractor. I am sort of relieved my mother has passed away so she will never know.
The first few weeks there were more than 60 women in the class, most I say between 25 and 40. Sue and I were the oldest ones there, well, maybe the brunette who wore mom jeans and asked for an ice pack was a little older. She showed up the first week and never again. By the eighth week, there were 25.
After I tried to put my elbow pads on my knees, Mimi Furst, an instructor, rolled over to gently show me I put them on upside down. The pads are plastic hard like the shin guards for soccer and when you tap the knee pads on the ground, they make a sound like tapdancers and I feel a rush. When we clap after a successful drill, the tunk tunk tunk tunk of wristguards hitting each other fills the warehouse.
Each week we place helmets over our bandanas and elbow pads over bare arms, slowly. It takes a good five minutes, sometimes seven or more to gear up after the warm-ups and initial stretching. We chat about where to buy the best tights and crazy socks -- on sale at DSW or the "slut stores" like Lovers Lane or Frederick's of Hollywood -- in the same kind of awkwardly friendly tone you share with strangers on a train ride or in line for the movies, with nothing in common but the moments at hand.
Queen B -the owner and founder of Derby Lite who is really Barbara Dolan -- takes attendance with our derby names. She is trying to learn who we are, but reminds us to fill out a name tag and have someone slap it on our back, so she can call us by derby name when we are skating. Scrolling through the web site names roster is like flipping through a comic book: Cocktail Chase, Daisy Love, Cherry Bomb, Feral Fawcett, Kika Boom, Monkey Girl, Maulface, Rage Monkey and Yasmanian Devil.
Dozens of us are rolling in the same counter clockwise direction -- it's called skatewise -- and I decide I love that this sport has its own language. I am not good at the t- stops, but I learn soon enough I am very good at the plow stop, a two-legged skier stop and I am OK on the toe stops. I can stop without falling which is more than I can say for a few of my derby mates. Not the one with the t-shirt that says, 'Whatever doesn't kill me makes me hate more.' I am not as good as the girl in the black t-shirt with the words, "Talk derby to me." I want that shirt.
Derby is forcing me to do what I have never been able to do, ever. On my skates in this class I am forced to do one thing at a time. It is not natural to me; I am always planning my next lecture when I am driving, I am planning what I will make for dinner when I am grading papers. While I am folding laundry I am planning what I will wear on the next date with the short but very cute man who looks like an age-enhanced version of the guy I dated after college who my friends called "Mommy Problem."
I am once and forever looking ahead. It is how I live my life, raise my three sons, plan Thanksgiving for 40. It is how I survive, plot a career, it is how I feel OK Tuesday to Wednesday. It is how I talked myself through breast cancer and my recovery five years ago. Move past this bumpy part, the good part is just up the road. I have spent a lifetime delivering myself a series of silent pep talks.
But in derby there is just now. You are not anyone but a woman in pads and a helmet and a fake name trying to do something outside her comfort zone for two hours a week with total strangers, all of whom you learn to like, care about and cheer on, even the ones with the super scary tattoos including the girl who has three characters from "Reservoir Dogs" on her arms and neck.
You can have your bag of derby tricks -- know the kinds of stops possible, how to block, jam, the way to hold your elbows in against your chest, the way you skate headlights out, exhaust in (which is to say chest out, butt tucked in) and how to fall without hurting yourself.
But mostly you need to keep your head clear of everything but the present moment. Because when your mind wanders and you stop thinking about what you are doing right then -- even if it is just crossovers or blocking -- you can fall. One woman falls so often that the whole class erupts in applause when she makes it across the room upright. Tunk tunk tunk tunk tunk go the wristguards. The instructors remind her there is ice in the freezer in the back.
The instructors teach us how to fall-- to our knees first, then to our elbows, then to our wrists. The sound of simultaneous landing of knee pads on tile is a clicking synchopation that mimics a tribal backbeat. The whole time this great girl music is playing -- Pink, Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and the Mika song, "Big Girl You are Beautiful" -- that I have to stop grooving so much because when I rock out, I forget how to slow down sideways with my foot in a t-stop.I fall.
"It's not about the falling, it's about the getting up," Mimi shouts. I think this is a saying I want on my office door.
And then Queen B calls us out in pairs. For a race. It is my turn. I race around the inner circle, trying like hell to beat the girl in her 20s wearing the ripped fishnets and the striped shirt. I am crazy to win, consumed with the radioactivity of reckless ambition. It is just twice around the blue-taped circle and my heart is pounding and I am eight years old trying not to get tagged or hit in dodge ball. I think of nothing else but winning this 15-second race. I sweat so much my bra was wet. I win. It matters more to me than my last raise and almost more than my last book.
Derby came at the right time for me. I needed something else to do, something I was not good at -- yet -- in a place where no one knew me. I needed to move away from my crowded and busy life to come back and be in it fully I needed someone to tell me how to fall just right and that it was even good to fall and that if I protected myself, accepted that, stopped worrying about being judged, I would be OK. At first I had been trying so hard not to fall, that I had forgotten to just skate.
So each week I listen to the instructions for each drill. I let go of every other thought, worry and distraction. I can crossover, fall on one knee, turn around and get right back up to skate in a new direction. Though I am not by any stretch the fastest or most agile girl in the group -- we get timed -- I am not the slowest or the clumsiest. It makes me so happy. So, so happy.
Mich The Masher is in the house.