The Poetry of Thunder

why are we alive?
you’re what happens when two substances collide
and by all accounts you really should’ve died
-Andrew Bird

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The Language of Water

The Dao is plainly spoken;
it’s so ordinary, people
don’t even hear it.
-The Daodejing

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Addiction: An Abuser’s Guide

This spring I took a class on Live Lit at the Story Studio. The Story Studio is a place where writers can go to take classes and workshops, or just hang out and write.

The concept of the class was writing for the page versus writing for the stage. What you’re reading right now is the page. You can start reading and stop, go back and read something or skip ahead. Reading on stage isn’t like that. Time is an arrow and it moves in one direction. Clicking above brings you to the stage.

It’s a different kind of attention.

Our first assignment was to write something one minute long, then two, etc., working our way up to five. The biggest lesson was that an audience never actively wants to see you fail but actually hates seeing you fail because they’re (usually) empathetic and it makes them feel uncomfortable to see you bomb. Their empathy and attention, however, are finite resources. So use your time wisely, and don’t abuse the fact that you have their attention.

I try not to. Here’s me performing my final piece. I went long. Sorry.

 

 

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Plants R Sexyyy

 

Is it female?

 

vagina

 

Or is it male?

 

penis

 

Both.
Neither.
The questions themselves are false.

 

rosebud

 

tiny penis (with hand)

 

German scientists have recently proved plants actually have orgasms. The result?

Allergies.

 

ass

 

ass.2

 

Assholes.

 

***

 

These plants were photographed at Longwood Gardens, the premier botanical garden of the continent of North America.

 

phallic admiration

 

Photos by J. Napolitano

 

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Wisconsin Wedding

Last week I went to my cousin’s Wedding in Wisconsin. Incidentally, during the mass there was a carnival outside, and as the bread and wine was being consecrated the screaming of girls spinning on the Tilt-a-Whirl and the lyrics of Ricky Martin’s Livin La Vida Loca bleed through the stained glass windows and into the old church.

I forgot my camera, but was able to document the weekend thru sound, instead. Here is a collage of a father speaking at his daughter’s wedding reception, three men turning a sailboat on the choppy waters of Lake Michigan, the ambient sounds of a New Age gift shop on Brady St., Milwaukee and the singing of a church choir, and a young couple hashing out their differences. And a man with a message, pounding away at an upright piano.

Enjoy.

 

The Union of Man and Nature

The Union of Man and Nature

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We got Lost in the Colombian Jungle


Live Lit is a uniquely Chicago artform. Somewhere between storytelling, standup, essay and improv. There’s a Live Lit show every night somewhere in the city either at a bar, cafe or theater. Because we’re not New York or LA,  many of the performers are non-professional, and the audiences are super-empathetic, in search of deeper human connection.

Here, Chicago is one such event that takes place on the first Sunday of every month at Stage 773. It’s led by Janna Sobel and is modeled after a pot-luck, wherein you show up with food and a story and munch on other people’s food and stories.

Anyone and everyone can have a chance to perform. Here’s a recording of my attempt in April. You can hear how generous the crowd is.

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It’s a Blog Birthday! (PART 3/3)

[Last one! Three of my favorite people...]

 

Kevin Gallagher

 I am breathless and sweating; I decide to take a smoke break and lament my booze diluted blood

"I'll let you stew in silence"

“I’ll let you stew in silence”

[What are you?]

I am still debating whether I am the light or the light bulb.

The Light: Let the roots of the future grow in the cracks of the past, I am an ever unfolding re-presentation of an unknowable universe to itself.

The Lightbulb: I am the tunnel through which an endless ribbon of deoxynucleotides replicates.

To solve this riddle, I study biochemistry.

[Memory?]

I was jumping for gopher padfoot’s hand, reaching down from the space between a concrete pillar and the abandoned bridge it supported, somewhere in the fringe near 18th street. Ten – fifteen attempts later, I am breathless and sweating. I decide to take a smoke break and lament my booze diluted blood, and tell padfoot to go ahead without me – to tell me what he sees. [And this is what I saw: a massive train yard, the metal tracks of a hundred different lines crawling over each other like blind rattle snakes in a pit; an Amtrak guard, walking alone, the gravel crunching beneath his feet]

[Favorite post?]

That one paragraph that goes “the earth turned its back on the sun like it was never going to look back…ants’ shadows lengthened in the sun…” That shit is pure gold.
[from the first post! glad it's been downhill ever since]

(one hour later)

can you remove the to solve this riddle part? I no longer like it. self definitions suck.

[but i might like it]

haha do as you wish

[Kevin, I am also the universe trying to learn itself. That makes us one. Not to appropriate your experience; maybe we are irrevocably two, a vast gulf of nothingness between us. To friendship!]

 

Julia Napolitano

Asshole. Mean-spiritedness, absent-mindedness, cold-heartedness.

At the Leather Archives of Chicago

“We’re hetero-normative, we swear!”

 

[What is something you hate?]

Biking north on Clark the last time I was going to see you, somebody almost doored me. “Almost” meaning I dodged it with enough time and space, but this clueless person was paying NO attention to what was going on around him. When I passed him and said WATCH OUT, he just laughed. [For my readers: getting "doored" is what happens when someone opens their door to get out of their car and a cyclist runs into the open door. Sometimes it is fatal]

Why are people shits, Ben? [idk] Thank you for not being a shit. [np] I hate shitty people…when people are shitty…if someone is shitty more of the time than they aren’t, can I just call them A Shitty Person? [yes] I’d like to give people the benefit of the doubt that doing shitty things doesn’t make them overall shitty, but: that person who opened his fucking door on me. That’s 100% of the time I will have ever interacted with him. And he was 110% shitty to me in that interaction.Therefore in my world he is a shitty person. Asshole. Mean-spiritedness, absent-mindedness, cold-heartedness. I hate realizing that there really are people everywhere who could open their car door and come so close to seriously harming another human’s life, and just laugh about it.

Thank you for reading that and inviting us to talk about things we hate. I feel better…venting can be quite healing.

[Way to get it out. The good kind of hate]

Dooring is just one example of prime shittiness in humans. Any time someone makes a point of having no regard for you – your body, emotions, thoughts – that’s shitty, and I hate it. Which leads me to your next question…

[what do you love?]

…I love having people in my life, like you Ben, who do the opposite, who want to honor all of these parts of ourselves and process things and seek Feeling Good. [ ( : ]

[A topic you'd like to see covered on UD?]

Mu! Audio stuff. Been saying it in person a lot…the formats I’m excited to see you continue working with are your recording pieces such as Cookies and Carnitas. Writing pieces can do this too, tell multiple stories/contain multiple levels of interpretation; with audio I do love how there are so many things going on when you overlay sounds with dialogue and see how they come together as music, stories. Keep getting Joe Franky on us, it’s good. [OK, it's in the works]

As far as topics, I have a few ideas…maybe some of them are things I want to write about myself…the main ones that are coming to mind seem relate back to a central theme of our bodies and how they interact with our environments…I was going to suggest Napping, the experiences of body modification specifically what it was like when you got your tattoo (is there a post about this I’ve missed?), sex, food, and how any of these things produce both physiological and social responses in you and others. Hmm. I’d like to hash out topic ideas more later. I think we can say we do that all the time when we’re together, hash out ideas.
[We do hash things out. It is a never-ending process, and that's OK. The psycho-physiological effects of activities like napping, pastries and sex? Is experience reducible to chemicals, or is it much, much more? The spot on the horizon where the individual and social body converge? Big ideas. I might need a guest blogger...]

[A queery for me?]

I just read your bike post from last year. Do you still think about your bike as a reflection of your spiritual health?

[Yes. And the level of uncleaned dishes accumulating in my sink. Last weekend a friend tuned-up my bike for free. Now it rides great. So I guess friendship is a big part of spiritual growth. And lube]

 

Mimi

Thanks for introducing me to inter-human sex, asshole

Creature of Divine Love AKA Natural Born Killer

Creature of Divine Love AKA Natural Born Killer

[Do you have a ritual for reading the blog?]
Kind of. I watch Ben sitting in his apartment alone uploading what he just posted and reading it over and over again, imagining hundreds of people doing the same thing. The ego.

[How about a story involving you and the author?]
Once he got done blowing his nose into his own hand because he’s disgusting and too lazy to grab a kleenax, and after he sat around too afraid to do anything with the pretense that he was being contemplative, he got around to feeding me a treat.

[Do you have a favorite blogpost?]
Habit of Creature. For two reasons. It’s an accurate portrayal of the slavishness of dogs. And it’s the shortest of all 100.

[Pet peeves?]
I don’t appreciate the phrasing of that question.

[Err, anything that bothers you idiosyncratically?]
No I assume you perturb many people.

[What's something you'd like to see covered in Underspecialized?]
Me-Me.
[It's in the works...]

[Anything you'd like to thank me for?]
Yeah, for introducing me to inter-human sex at the ripe-old age of 12. That was definitely NOT on my bucket list, asshole.

[Something you love?]
Attention.

[Something you hate?]
Attention.

[Final words?]
Is this self-indulgent “blog birthday” finally over?

[Yes. Thank you everyone!]

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It’s a Blog Birthday! (PART 2/3)

Peter Gilmour

'How are you Peter?' 'I couldn't be better if I had good sense.'

‘How are you Peter?’
‘I couldn’t be better if I had good sense.’

Literature, music, drama, and ritual are hypnotic transrational experiences for me.

[How did you come to be, and what is your place within the cosmos?]

I am a professor emeritus from Loyola University Chicago.  I was born at a University of Chicago hospital  just a few days before Enrico Fermi split the atom a few blocks away.  Truly, I am a child of the atomic age! [haha]  My interests have always been transrational, e.g., those experiences which transcend rational explanation. [huh?] Literature, music, drama, ritual are hypnotic transrational experiences for me. [oh]

[Favorite blog post?]

I particularly remember “Speculative Autobiography,” perhaps for egocentric reasons.  I am the author of, “The Wisdom of Memoir: Reading and Writing Life’s Sacred Texts.”  This book looks at life as a manifestation of the divine and the telling of a life story or part of a life story as a form of wisdom literature.  I am also fascinated with the concept of mapping, both physical and spiritual geographies, and appreciated the maps in the piece.  Nice work.

[Didn't realize we barked up the same tree! Once, you walked into Metropolis and I was howling a single syllable for no reason. Then, without missing a beat, you started singing too. Quit hypnotic! Thanks Peter]

 

Erica Ricardo

[Who are you?]
Poet.
[Favorite post or line?]
“My great-great grandfather aimed his rifle at the emaciated, wolfish-looking man running up to their front door. His wife pushed the barrel away, recognizing her son.”
[Wow, from post #2! Thanks Erica, mortal enemy of haters of the weird, and creator of Blogjob]

 

Bob Wegner, Pops, or Kathy’s Latest Fling.

"Boardwalk, please"

“Boardwalk, please”

We eventually worked our way up to making go-karts to shooting up rockets into space carrying guppies or mice.

[A story from your own life?]
As we prepare to pack up for an upcoming move leaving Delaware, we’re coming across a multitude of Gopher Padfoot’s personal items…a living time capsule in vivid 3-D.  From closets to file cabinets to boxes…a wealth of good memories.  What a rich history of boyhead [sic.] passions: a drum set that seems to consist of 100 pieces [each of them expensive- thanks dad], paintings, ultimate Frisbee shoes, a chess set from grandpa, a host of writing materials, passport, a survival kit from a sister [matches, walking stick, carbon monoxide detector, poem by Rudolf Steiner], grandpa’s 1950 encyclopedias, even dirty used clothes – no moths please – on and on.

Ben’s life – brought out from his personal items – reminds me of my earlier years. [hmm...] Memories from my childhood consist of being raised in a very large family…usually had enough arms and legs (not necessarily talent) to assemble a team for playing sports – only the three main ones mattered (baseball, basketball, football).  Hobbies, personal interests, and not getting caught doing something bad necessitated us to be creative as kids.

We enjoyed literally thousands of hours of years of our youth in exploring (and conquering) “the woods”…a local bounty of wilderness. Woods in Summer:  ‘sploring’, climbing the timbers, fort building; Winter:  skating and sledding, surviving the harsh Wisconsin elements. The woods:  our personal refuge that we ruled for years.

[Some differences between me and you: I had the chance to play richy-rich sports like hockey and lacrosse while you played the 'three main ones'. Some similarities: We both spent a lot of time in the woods, our refuge, and grew up inventing games. I also loved the times you coached my little league baseball teams, even though you kept wanting to check we had our cups on...]

[How are you creative in your own life (anything from writing, making things with tools, drawing, etc.)?]

Gees, did we build things!  Early projects involved hand-made necessities such as a butterfly net out of a hanger and net fabric or that necessary bow and arrow or slingshots for sustenance.  Hey, I’m talking early on.  We never did shoot any deer or rabbits with those.  Mom always had had a PB+J sandwich or two to keep us going. [Thanks Grandma]

We eventually worked our way up to making go-karts [what!?] to shooting up rockets into space carrying guppies or mice. [because they can't feel, right?]  And housing…yes, we built fort after fort in the woods.  Little did we know at the time, that my future wife and brothers would unknowingly invade them, knock them down a bit for us to build more concealed ones. [my parents grew up next to the same woods, at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee]

All-in-all…some awesome childhood memories…all spurred from Ben’s wonderful artifacts that we’re seeing now ahead of the next journey. [Awesome dad. Thanks so much]

…Many cherished moments …each one to be augmented with new ones into the future.

 

Amy Jamy Schyler 彩漫 Cunningham 姜. Which itself is hard to figure out.

2-dimensional

2-dimensional

[Favorite blog post?]
Honestly, I find the ones I am in or thought of to be supremely interesting simply for the fact I get a chance to imagine the vast differences in perception. Simply put, it is rather awesome to see what other people take away from times with you.

Is there a question about my life path or current activities? I’m gonna go with 有.
那…I am on a bus going through Western 中国 headed towards a village for 端午节 (known as Dragon Boat festival in English). Oh, the wonders of internet phones.
From there, I am joining my 朋友 to teach his kids baseball and work with his special needs kids for a week. Woo.
I am also trying to grow out my nails. Which means a lot of nail polish.
[Jesus. I'm renting a car and driving to Wisconsin]

[Pets ?]
Three cats, two strays, one spider, several students and select friends (they just don’t know it.)
[We do, and thanks for getting me 'fixed']

A 问题 for Ben…
How is your cat doing?
[Mimi is doing absolutely wonderful. She is answering the questions too and will appear next week!]

[My friend, our correspondence during your time in China has been invaluable. Your journey abroad and my journey at home have mirrored each other in fascinating ways, and your experience has informed me immensely; specifically, you've taught me that if I look too hard for something, I might miss everything. Everyone: if you want to read about what it's like to teach English and rural China and then discover that maybe it's not the best thing, right now, to do, oh my god what do I do now?- then click here]

 

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It’s a Blog Birthday! (PART 1/3)

[Breaking this into three parts because there is a lot of good stuff to read. And I need a vacation.

Recently a friend told me he's been to more funerals than he has weddings. He told me that life is a gift; it's no guarantee. I think that's true, and while I have a tendency to feel guilty about the fact that I exist while the environment goes to shit and small children die of preventible diseases, I choose to feel grateful rather than guilty. Besides, what's a better response to a gift?

Celebration. Thank you to everyone who participated in celebrating this blog's 100th post. Reading your responses made me feel really guilty grateful to have you in my life.  Thank you. Today honestly feels like a second birthday. And now, THE READERS!

xo,
Benjamin 'gopher padfoot' Wegner]

Grandma

Bill, Cosmo and Ann

Bill, Cosmo and Ann

Being with my family and having them tell me about their lives is the happiest time for me.

[How do you use your time? What's a 'typical' day?]
My typical day is rising by 6:00 a.m. After coffee I read the paper, check email and say my morning prayers. I pray The Lord takes care of our family, gives grandpa a good day.

Right now my healing after surgery is changing my activities. When I am healed I will again take the dog for a long walk, go to Yoga class and volunteer with Cosmo at the local hospital and library. I belong to the grief ministry at my Church which has taught me a lot. Also in the Church choir.

[What is most important to you?]
Most important to me is my family. I enjoy to see how all have grown and matured. Being with them and having them tell me about their lives is the happiest time for me. My religion is very important, I need and get strength from my faith.

[Thank you so much, Grandma. For those of you who didn't catch that, my grandma visits sick children and seniors with her dog, Cosmo. I'm very proud to have such a wise and compassionate grandma- who reads my blog every Monday morning!]

My name is Whitney Peterson, Wide Faced Wendy, or something along those lines…

 

 

photo 2

Memory is a strange beast. Our ability to forge meaning from chaos and contradiction is truly astounding.

[a story (in your own words) about a time you had with me]
I don’t know what I was doing before or after this particular event. I was somewhat successfully (depending on how you define success) balancing on the handlebars of Padfoot’s bike. Or perhaps it was my own kleines Fahrrad. The chilly mist in the air reflected the glow from the streetlights illuminating the cobblestone streets. As we picked up speed, I pictured Padfoot losing momentum and my body smashing to the ground, as it had done twice already in the previous months. A drunken joy and excitement soon clouded my initial panic. It was one of those spontaneous moments when you think to yourself, “I am going to remember this.” I suppose we made it to our destination, but that small window of time is what stands out most. I’d be interested to know if Padfoot remembers this at all.
[I remember. It was night- and as you say- frosty. We were past that tunnel, the one under the train tracks where during the daytime people sold flowers and cheap pastries. We were headed somewhere far enough that walking seemed dissatisfying. I suggested you ride on my handlebars and was baffled by your ready assent. The hardest part was what you described, but what I remember most vividly was riding along the limestone path at a steady clip past two Germans who were looking at us with unconcealed admiration. Boy was I drunk. Haha!]

[your favorite blog post]
I liked time is not wasted if it’s deliberate because I have also been on at least two dates with myself at the Chicago Cultural Center [you have!?]. Even though it is geographically located in an ideal location for tourists/self-daters, the place seemed somehow forgotten [right!?]. I believe it used to be the old central library [it was]. Part of me wishes it were still filled with books [me too]. I also enjoyed reading The Man Who Couldn’t Cry. I was compelled by the way you wrote with awareness of your inner conflict which later manifests in regret. Perhaps regret is most significant when we know we will regret our actions at that very moment of indecision [omg yes]. You also wrote a post about your experience tripping on acid, I believe, for multiple weeks through finals?? Solid work. Perhaps I shouldn’t be impressed [a couple of my professors weren't either]. All in all, you have a strong honest voice that emerges through your writing. Keep it up.

[what you are doing with your life]
What am I doing with my life? Yikes. I am currently doing some kind of balancing act trying to make everyone happy and not tip the boat. At some point in the very near future, I hope to be in the open water swimming in whatever direction pleases me [bravo!]. Since I left Chicago, I have been working at Manzanar National Historic Site, a place where Japanese Americans were confined during World War II, two-thirds of them citizens. Perhaps the most rewarding part of my job has been conducting oral histories with people who were confined at Manzanar. It is amazingly difficult and enlightening to speak with people who have experienced the world for over 80 years, especially when they are verbalizing memories that they have never talked about. Memory is a strange beast. Our ability to forge meaning from chaos and contradiction is truly astounding. Since January, I’ve been working at a library, which has proved more challenging than expected. I thought access to free books would make people happy. Apparently this library is a place where people feel entitled to do as they wish by treating people and the poor, helpless books with blatant disrespect. It’s all a fantastic learning experience though, right? When I am not working, I’m usually navigating the rugged, isolated wilderness of the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley. It could take ten lifetimes to really get to know this place. The end.

[You have a strong honest voice that emerges through your writing. Thanks Whitney, look forward to seeing you again.]

Kristin

Ella, asleep

Ella, asleep

It gets much, much better!!! Be patient. It really does!

[How do you know Ben?]
We came from the same uterus
[Do you have a 'ritual' for reading the blog?]

Yes. I normally read it on my phone either right before going to bed, or early Monday morning, depending on when I go to work.

[Are you a writer?]
Yes
[What do you write about?]
travel, culture

[Anything you want to get out there, to an audience verging on the 20s!?]
Hmm… I would say to myself in my 20s just what I would say to myself in high school, “It gets much, much better!!! Be patient. It really does!”

[Pets- do you have pets?]
Yes, Ella!

[Pet peeves?]
hipster
[oh no, have you seen where I work?]

[Do you have a question for me?]
What advice would you give to a teenage you? A ten-year old you? A five-year old you? Are any of those sage words still applicable?
[Great Question! Teenage Ben- If you learn moderation you might be able to keep enjoying these things you're enjoying so much. Ten-year old Ben- don't completely abandon spontaneous play for organized sports. Five-year old Ben- Get a job! No really, listen: America is actually really weird; stop drinking corn syrup.]

[What is one thing you'd like to see covered on Underspecialized?]
I want to see videos and/or music that you collect along your daily journeys!
[OK, it's in the works!]

[Thanks so much Kristy. Long ago you brought me out of the cave and into the light, and things have never quite looked the same. Love, Your Little Brother]

 


Kathy “Catheter” Wegner, aka no longer Mommy, but Mom, Mum, Ma, and “What do you know?”
[Wow. See where I get my sense of humor from?]

My Mom and Her Most Recent Fling... hi Dad.

My Mom and Her Most Recent Fling.

The reader learned the author has a rich sense of humor and loves to play games with people, systems and institutions.

[Your favorite blog post or reading ritual?]

My favorite blog was the “Five Paragraph Essay” from August 2012. It was easy to understand. Everyone can empathize with it. There were hidden meanings in this blog. You can see that the “Five Paragraph Essay was the best blog.

First, the “Five Paragraph Essay blog is easy to understand. The reader didn’t have to comprehend difficult concepts such as philosophy or linguistics, characteristic in many other blogs.

Secondly, everyone can empathize with “The Five Paragraph Essay.” At some point in our education, we all probably had to write a five paragraph essay.

Finally, there were hidden meanings in “The Five Paragraph Essay.” The reader learned the author has a rich sense of humor and loves to play games with people, systems and institutions. His reluctance to follow the prescribed formula demonstrates his delight in being unconventional.

In conclusion, “The Five Paragraph Essay” is my favorite. The three reasons it is the best are it is easy to understand, everyone can empathize with it, and it has hidden meanings. Now you can see that “The Five Paragraph Essay” is the best blog.

[Oh My God, that was incredible! Do you have a message or question you'd like to share with me?]
My question is… Do you consider your readers’ possible reactions before writing or posting? For example, are you worried you might offend or alienate someone?
[I want to make this absolutely clear- You are at more risk associating with a writer than you are with a terrorist. By relating to me, there's no telling what collateral damage might occur, and I have not even released my memoirs. That being said, I do pause each and every time I reference (or challenge the beliefs of) somebody from real life. There have been times I posted something and then immediately felt uncomfortable and even guilty. However, the times I censored myself make me feel even worse. Hopefully, I earn my artistic license by doing two things A) Putting myself in harms way more often and before anybody else, and B) writing only what I think is true and would be willing to say in person. If you (and I'm talking to everyone) ever feeling alienated by something I write, please ask me about it. Conversation trumps silence every time.]
[What are you doing with your life?]
I’m re-inventing myself.
[Thanks Mom. I love you so much, I can't even tell you how much I love you.]
Mike
Mike and his Pecker

Mike and his Pecker

My place in this universe is simple, to communicate. I want to communicate through laughter and song.

A) Michael Glader (See picture attached)
B) My favorite blog post is… “Time’s Not Wasted If It’s Deliberate
I like this piece because I feel completely in lock with Ben. Always honest, I feel like I am with Ben on the date, seeing the same things, hearing the same sounds. In addition to its clarity, I always walk away from Ben’s pieces with something new I have learned. Ben seamlessly works history and contemplative ideas into his work. I feel calm. I leave with a greater meaning in my head. Build your own ship.
C) My stance towards life! I am here on this planet to make people laugh. I am here on this planet to write music and heal people through song. My place in this universe is simple, to communicate. I want to communicate through laughter and song.D) I want to thank Ben. I want to thank Ben for being a rock. I want to thank the universe for bringing us together. I want to thank Ben for helping me navigate this world in the ship I am continuously building. Every Thursday Ben and I get together to share our creative works, our thoughts and talk about life. This structure has provided me with an artistic constant and a great friend to share a guttural laugh with. I am eternally grateful for this. Thank you, Ben.
[Mike, I am grateful the universe has brought us together, too. Even though you have horrible body odor, a disfigured face, and an even more disfigured personality, you are still somewhat possible to tolerate. If our Thursday Night meetings were half-way productive, they would have taught me that Life and Art are irreversibly intertwined; they would have taught me that Art is best made with and for other people; you would have taught me that creativity can be a healing force; you would have exhibited, week after week, courage, honesty and friendship. But, since they've been a complete waste of my time, none of that is true. Thanks a lot. Dick.]

[More Next Week! A chance for late submissions?]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Cried During My First Time at Roller Derby

Womyn's Sport

Womyn’s Sport

The smell of a hundred women’s body odor. Like death, you either fight it or accept it learning to enjoy it. The sound of roller skates hitting and rolling across the wooden floor. Pump-up music as teams run through their drills. Your heart beating as you remember playing hockey as a youth. The anxiety of the unavoidable collision. Scoring a goal for your team. Exhilaration.

Jamburglar jumps from skate to skate, juking her way through four big women determined to crush her. She breaks through and skates around the track, solo. The crowd trumpets its approval. The four girls re-position themselves in Red Rover formation, Smaxl Rose is at the head barking orders. Jamburglar- less than five foot tall and wearing thick-framed glasses- circles back to the Defense, whose collective mass exceeds 700 pounds of raw female flesh- most of it covered in tattoos. Jamburglar breaks through a second time, scoring 5 more points for her team. I begin to cry. I am both sad and happy and end up crying for the whole next hour. It’s my first time at a Bout. I have no idea why I’m crying, but I am.

‘Bout’ is the name for a Roller Derby match. Like any sport, Derby has its own language, customs and signs. A ‘Jammer’ is the person who skates around the rink, attempting to score points for her team. Almost every girl has a nickname, a pun based on her actual name or position. Hence Jamburglar the Jammer and Smaxl Rose who plays defense. Even the referees have nicknames on the back of their striped jerseys, i.e., Frank Lloyd Wrong. This is the brilliance of Roller Derby: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the same time, it takes itself as seriously as a broken wrist.

At will-call outside the UIC Pavilion, I see two baby-boomers wearing matching red wind-breakers that have Smaxl Rose‘s name and number on it, carrying a small cooler filled with drinks. They must be her parents. I grew up with two older sisters who both played sports. I remember going with them to softball games and track events, the little-brother-hanger-on, crawling under bleachers past years’ worth of dust and fossilized gum. My parents were one of the few parents who went to almost every game. Some of the girls, their parents didn’t come at all. But the ones who did carried with them collapsible canvas chairs, well-worn thermoses, and jackets with their daughter’s name and number on it. I’ve always wondered what happened to the sports parents after their girls went on to college and they stopped having games to go to. Did they set their fan gear on a blazing raft and push it into Lake Michigan, or did they just forget it ever happened? Luckily for some, their girls come out of athletic purgatory years later, but in an unexpected form: Derby.

My girlfriend actually bought me my ticket. She was going to the game to volunteer. She works with the Chicago Women’s Health Center, an all-women’s health collective that operates on a sliding scale payment structure. Her mission for the day was to man a booth and pass out free condoms, lube and literature about the clitoris (Tip of the Iceberg, by Laura Szumowski). She also had free buttons with animated speculums on them that read “I did it myself at CWHC”. Think DIY gynecology. I put one on my shirt where it still hangs. At half-time, Julia walked down to the center of the rink and told everyone about the services CWHC provides and the lube they had today- just minutes after a bunch of kids ran a relay race bouncing across the floor on balloons. Another cool aspect of Roller Derby: it spans the gamut from family fun to queer studies, bros to bitches- they all come to watch the girls.

My Julia
My Julia

Let’s face it, Roller Derby isn’t as popular as other sports and it probably never will be. Nor should it, because all the sponsors are local companies like Hoosier Momma Pies and the people who go there really want to be there- they’re not the type of schmucks who score tickets to a Cubs game from their corporate overlords. Everything is DIY. Even the merchandise booth is staffed by the players themselves, sometimes just after they played, meaning the change they hand back to you is drenched in sweat. It was there at the merchandise booth where I asked for a brochure explaining the game (Derby is really confusing until you know what’s going on).
“No”, they told me, “we don’t have brochures…”
“I’ll show you”, said the woman next to me, “I’m visiting from out of town and have no one to sit next to anyhow. I’ll show you how it works”.

Her name is Allison. She’s from San Francisco and plays Derby there. She was in Chicago on business, but stayed an extra day, “because I just had to see the Windy City Rollers“. Let me tell you a little more about her, because I think as an individual she encapsulates the spirit of the game. She started playing three years ago, weeks after giving birth to her first child. On the day I cried, before getting there, she visited the top floors of all three of the tallest buildings in Chicago- just for the hell of it. That’s the Sears Tower (sic.), John Hancock, and Trump Tower. Aggressive. She sat next to me, beer in hand, patiently answering my many questions, as well as butting in to explain things I was oblivious to. Generous. She also shouted at the girls, with the girls, for the girls. After the games she ran up and congratulated them. She admired good play and scorned the slouches. Enthusiastic. In short, both Allison and Roller Derby are aggressive, generous, and enthusiastic.

Neither Allison nor my girlfriend saw me cry. The last time I cried like that was at a modern dance performance, actually, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I watched a woman embody the silence we adopt in the face of the constant bombardment of obligation, insult and information which is modern life. Or at least that’s how I interpreted it. Her eyes and mouth were wide open yet mute as she pulled herself across the stage like a schizophrenic contortionist. Which is exactly how I feel when I’m behind the cash register at work, while typing in a customer’s order while getting their coffee while starting a new urn of coffee while grabbing a quiche made by Hoosier Momma Pies from the microwave while, at the same time, getting rude looks and bad energy from the unending torrent of customers not realizing I’m the one who’s helping them. It sucks.

And it’s what I’m able to let go of as I watch Jamburglar squirt through the elbows and hips of her colossal foes. I see myself in her, and because she’s outside of me, I’m able to feel a level of compassion and sympathy toward her/me that I’m usually not able, either because I’m too proud or allergic to feeling sorry for myself. Watching derby, I recognize that I’m hurt. The anxiety, the rudeness, the collisions you cannot avoid. I’m crying for myself.

But then, when she breaks through- ahh! when she breaks through- it’s exhilarating. It’s freedom, sports and speculums all rolled up into one. On skates.

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