Saturday, June 30, 2007

Satisfied hound

Crooked Timber's Belle Waring on Fred Thompson. Smarter and funnier than what I was trying to say.

Why are people trying to convince me that Fred Thompson is sexy? A lock for
the Republican nomination, OK—I feel that since all the other candidates have
some truly fatal flaw, and since ol’Fred has been conveniently out of office
during the late unpleasantness of the Bush II era he’ll get the nomination by
default. I even think he could make a decent candidate in the general election,
but sexy ladies man who’s going to Smoove B my vote by freaking me gently all election cycle long? I think not.

First of all, are women voters, taken as a whole, really so much like retarded kittens in our motivations? And secondly, doesn’t Fred Thompson pretty much look like a basset hound who’s just taken a really satisfying shit in your hall closet?

There's just not much there there with Fred Thompson, as the New Hampshire Republicans underwhelmed by his recent nine-minute speech will attest.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


It's not so much that I feel sympathy for Mike Nifong, it's that I feel a lot of distaste for some of the people who are crowing at his downfall: For former Duke lacrosse coach, now "professional victim" Mike Pressler. For our governor Mike Easley, who piled on to Nifong after he saw which way the wind was blowing. For KC Johnson and other bloggers who have made a cottage industry out of blog-flogging Duke and Nifong and Crystal Mangum. (Johnson proudly struck a blow for justice by ferreting out and publishing Mangum's name early on, when the mainstream media was refraining from that.) For the Duke student newspaper, which on the day Nifong was disbarred, ran the banner headline A GREAT DAY FOR NORTH CAROLINA. (Quoting the defense lawyer for one of the lacrosse players.)

Look, getting rid of an outrageously inept prosecutor wasn't a great day, it was a necessary day for North Carolina. It was like a tumor being excised, the day when healing hopefully will begin. Maybe it was a great day for high-priced defense lawyers, maybe it was a great day for carpetbagging college students, but for many of us it was somewhat somber. I don't know if it's generally understood how bad the Duke lacrosse case was for virtually everybody touched by it, in addition to the wrongly accused players. It was bad all the way around for Duke (the president, the faculty, the students). Duke students now hate President Dick Brodhead, they truly hate him, he's down there with Osama Bin Laden and venereal disease, which I think is an unfortunate and corrosive situation. Given the givens, I'm not certain any other university president would have handled it much differently. It was bad all the way around for Durham (the cops, the courts, the mayor, the city's national image). I guess it was good for the defense lawyers, and it was good for the media.

Another thing to say about the lacrosse case is how topsy-turvy it was, how uniquely bizarre. Not that prosecutorial misconduct is so rare. What's rare is that a DA would stick his neck out so far in pursuit of well-heeled white defendants on behalf of a poor black accuser. In the first days when the dogs were baying for the lacrosse team, among the friends I was talking to locally, it was clear how far Nifong was sticking his neck out (I remember one conversation with a friend, about how much differently Raleigh DA Colon Willoughby, a model of probity, would have played it), but it was hard to imagine Nifong was bluffing, that he wasn't holding the cards. I made an error, one shared by many Duke faculty and employees: I generalized about the lacrosse case. I thought of it as a symptom of broader social problems at Duke: overuse of alcohol, abusive sexual politics, jock worship taken to extremes. Like the Group of 88 faculty members, I mouthed the prophylactic phrase "innocent until proven guilty," but I was much too willing to conclude the players were guilty, not nearly skeptical enough. One of the lessons there is, do not generalize from this bizarre case. This advice is for you, my conservative counterparts, as well as for my liberal allies. Do not draw broad conclusions about the raw deal white guys get in the courts, or the way hetero guys are constantly harassed by false rape charges.

This entire mess was all Mike Nifong's fault. It feels funny to say that; I'm used to looking for sociological undercurrents to explain events. But I put this all at Nifong's feet. It makes me curious about him, hungry to understand him, even (contra the opening sentence of this post) a little sympathetic to him. One thing I think explains a good bit (I learned this from the Raleigh N&O’s excellent Rush to Judgment series about the lacrosse case) is the fact that Nifong knew the accuser's family. An uncle of the accuser had been murdered several years ago, Nifong tried the case and got a conviction, and there was a bond between the prosecutor and the family.

Nifong put his head down, plowed ahead, didn't pause to entertain doubts Sure, there was a re-election campaign and he figured the media attention would help him, but a moment of career calculation veered off into months of fatal single-mindedness. A halfway competent Machiavellian would have switched course much earlier. As the N&O's Steve Ford related in an editorial last Sunday, the state bar judge concluded that Nifong's actions were the product of "self-deception arising out of self-interest," and that might be as good an explanation as we can hope for.

More Steve Ford:

[Nifong] had entered the territory where character was put to the acid test. To have backed down would have been humiliating, or worse, could have amounted to an admission of misconduct. It would have meant defeat at the hands of defense attorneys who had engaged him in a vicious legal knife fight. His stubbornness, combativeness and pride all must have kicked in -- all-too-human flaws.

So Nifong slid down the slope of deceit in the sharing of DNA evidence -- perhaps, in his mind, not all the way to the bottom, but far enough that the defense was able to cry "cheater" and make it stick. He couldn't summon straight answers when asked in court to give assurances that all the evidence helpful to the defense had been disclosed.

Ethical guidelines exist to protect us against ourselves. Nifong thought he was justified in bending the rules because of the greater end of justice, a favorite theme of television drama. (Think Andy Sipowicz, think Jack Bauer.) Look where he ended up.

Steve Ford concludes his column by giving Mike Nifong a little credit: "With the blade poised to drop on his legal career, Nifong at least had the grace to acknowledge that he was getting what he deserved." Actually, to some observers (such as my wife) this was the final insult, for Nifong to cop a plea after all the trouble and expense he put the system through. If it was calculation, it was certainly inept, wrong-headed calculation. I wonder if maybe Nifong never understood the players' ordeal, really never got it, until he saw Reade Seligmann's tearful testimony, given right in front of Nifong's face. It was only at that moment that the blinders came off.

A lot of books are being published to capitalize on the Duke lacrosse controversy, by KC Johnson and Mike Pressler and the lacrosse players' families and others. I may be all alone in this, but the only Duke lacrosse book that would interest me would be a profile of Mike Nifong, extraordinary villain, extraordinary fool.

Friday, June 22, 2007

"the hits from coast to coast"

I’m gonna meme myself – Here is a list of pop songs from 1982, the year I turned 18, and my memories of some of them. This is freshman and sophomore year of college for me. The list is of the “most requested songs,” whatever that means—on FM radio? I know I listened to a lot of The Police, a lot of Squeeze, a lot of Duran Duran during 1982, but they don’t appear anywhere on the list. Here are some from the list that trigger something with me.

867-5309 (Jenny Jenny) - Tommy Tutone: In the dictionary next to One-Hit Wonder, there is a picture of Tommy Tutone. I actually love this song, but as far as I can tell it’s the only thing they ever did that was halfway decent, so they totally deserve one-hit wonder status. I dated a girl named Jenny in 1982, and boy, did she get tired of being serenaded with this.

We Got The Beat – GoGos: I have a visual image here: I’m standing in the front yard of the fraternity house, it’s warm and sunny, a crowd is building, it feels like the first day of fall term sophomore year, all my friends are reassembling after a summer apart. It’s a joyful scene, and this is an upbeat and carefree song to match it. The music is blaring, we’re probably about to blow another speaker or burn out another amp, but we don’t really care. 1982 was the year of the GoGos in many ways; I imagine they would agree.

I Love Rock and Roll - Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: I loved this song. Joan Jett was a revelation, a girl who rocked. Who are the guys who sing backup on the chorus, are they somebody famous? I can’t remember now, but that’s the part I used to sing along with at the top of my lungs. This song I associate with the radio and my freshman dorm room.

Rock This Town - Stray Cats: 1982 was the year I discovered MTV—a group of my older friends had a house off-campus with cable TV (!), and I’d veg out on their couch and watch for hours, making a nuisance of myself no doubt. This was a good video, although as a band the Stray Cats were rather contrived. I fancied that rockabilly was a type of music I liked, but I didn’t hear early Elvis or Buddy Holly or any of the real stuff until years later—the stuff of which the Stray Cats were a pale imitation.

Tainted Love – Soft Cell: Emblematic of all the foofy English synth bands that were around in the 80s, on MTV and on our turntables. Soft Cell was better than most, looking back on it.

Who Can It Be Now - Men at Work: I was reminded of Men at Work just the other day; their singer did a cameo on the TV show Scrubs, which is my daughter’s current favorite, and I was compelled to bore her by explaining who the guy was. They did this one album and then sank out of sight, but we played the one album a lot on my dorm hall.

Get Down On it - Kool & the Gang: Oh Jesus, this represents a number of songs on the list that were staples of dance mixes at college parties. “Whip It” and “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” are two more. I danced to these songs a thousand times at frat parties and never, ever listened to them otherwise. R&B songs, a little funky but just a little. It’s weird and rather sad how racially segregated music was in the 80s; we danced to black acts at the fraternity house, listened to white acts in our dorm rooms, and never the twain did meet. After The Big Chill came out, a bunch of Motown songs became party staples as well—again, a little funky but not too much. (Then there’s beach music, which is basically a slowed-down bleached-out version of Motown.) The emerging genre of rap music was too radical for us, even James Brown or Stax would not have gone over well.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go - The Clash: Heard this song a bazillion times—it was a popular dance number too, for the tempo changes and the romantic confusion from which we were all suffering reflected in the lyrics. I suppose this and “Rock The Casbah” were the Clash’s biggest U.S. hits, even though the band was on the downhill side and these songs don’t get within a mile of their earlier stuff.

Someday, Someway - Marshall Crenshaw: From the guy who played John Lennon in Beatlemania! Marshall Crenshaw played a concert on my college campus in ’82 or maybe ‘83. I have often lied and said that I was there, but in fact I wasn’t there. Don’t remember if it was apathy or lack of money that kept me away. I remember hearing that Crenshaw’s set was only 45 minutes; they played their then-current album and that was all the material they had. This is a hell of a good pop song—Crenshaw had a handful of songs that I really like a lot. I wish he had had a bigger, better career.

Paperlate – Genesis: I liked Genesis at this point; in about four years I would reach terminal Phil Collins overload. I remember “Paperlate” saw the band Genesis embrace its onetime fill-in drummer, now superstar frontman Collins’s hit-making formula, the EWF horns and all that,. The song was some kind of oddball release—single-only or on a benefit album or something. I had to go to some unusual lengths to get a copy, but I did.

Centerfold - J. Geils Band: In this song, a guy has a crush on a sweet virginal girl in his high school class, then years later sees her posing nekkid in Playboy. What can I say? It spoke to me. Unrequited crushes and Playboy were both big parts of my life when I was 18. This album (Freeze Frame) was good, it represented a long-awaited commercial breakthrough for the J. Geils Band, and they broke up almost immediately afterwards. Funny how often that happens with bands.

I Can't Go For That (No Can Do) - Hall and Oates: God help me, I liked Hall and Oates at the time. I was funk-impaired.

Jack and Diane - John Cougar (Melloncamp): This song outraged me. This guy John Cougar, who I’d never heard of, was blatantly ripping off Bruce Springsteen, a favorite of mine but who at this point, before Born in the USA came out in ’84, was practically a national secret.

The Message - Grandmaster Flash: Since this was a rap song I barely knew it in ‘82, I had to go abroad to hear it. In the summer of ’84 this song was playing in a nightclub in Cambridge, England on a night when I had to confront this guy, an English soldier, who was making unwelcome advances on a girl, a fellow American exchange student in my program. An upsetting night.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Just a quickie post, of the genus "things I read online that I might want to refer to later."

I saw somewhere that Antioch College in Ohio had suspended operations, but took little notice. I didn't know much about the school. Here Michael Goldfarb, former NPR correspondent and an Antioch graduate, wrote a NYT op-ed piece reflecting on the college's fate. Before the piece disappears into the Gray Digital Lady's archives, I wanted to preserve part of it.

THIS is an obituary for a great American institution whose death was announced this week. After 155 years, Antioch College is closing.

Established in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, by the kind of free-thinking Christian group found only in the United States, Antioch College was egalitarian in the best tradition of American liberalism. The college’s motto, not in Latin or Greek but plain English, was coined by Horace Mann, its first president: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

For most of its history the institution lived up to that calling. .. Yet it was in the high tide of liberal activism that the college lost its way. I know this firsthand, because I entered Antioch in the fall of 1968, just when the tide was nearing its peak...

So much of the history of 1968 reflects an America in crisis, but if you were young and idealistic it was a time of unparalleled excitement. The 2,000 students at Antioch, living in a picture-pretty American village, provided a laboratory for various social experiments of the time.

With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the college increased African-American enrollment to 25 percent in 1968, from virtually nil in previous years. The new students were recruited from the inner city. At around the same time, Antioch created coeducational residence halls, with no adult supervision. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll became the rule, as you might imagine, and there was enormous peer pressure to be involved in all of them. No member of the faculty or administration, and certainly none of the students, could guess what these sudden changes would mean. They were simply embraced in the spirit of the time.

I moved into this sociological petri dish from a well-to-do suburb. Within my first week I twice had guns drawn on me, once in fun and once in a state of drunken for real by a couple of ex-cons whom one of my classmates, in the interest of breaking down class barriers, had invited to live with her.


Each semester, the college seemed to create a new program. “We need to take education to the people” became a mantra, and so satellite campuses began to sprout around the country. Something called Antioch University was created, and every faculty member whose marriage was going bad or who simply couldn’t hack living in a village of 3,000 people and longed for the city came up with a proposal to start a new campus.

“It was liberalism gone mad,” a former professor, Hannah Goldberg, once told me, and she was right. The college seemed to forget the pragmatism that had been a key to its ethos, and tried blindly to extend its mission beyond education to social reform. But there were too many new programs and too little cash reserve to deal with the inevitable growing pains.

For the increasingly vocal radical members of the community, change wasn’t going far enough or fast enough. They wanted revolution, but out there in the middle of the cornfields the only “bourgeois” thing to fight was Antioch College itself. The let’s-try-anything, free-thinking society of 1968 evolved into a catastrophic blend of legitimate paranoia (Nixon did keep enemies lists, and the F.B.I. did infiltrate campuses) and postadolescent melodrama. In 1973, a strike trashed the campus and effectively destroyed Antioch’s spirit of community. The next year, student enrollment was down by half.

That's interesting about the Rockefeller Foundation.

I reflect on my own college, a liberal-arts school but not nearly as progressive as Antioch, which also went through some wrenching changes in the late 60s and early 70s, but always incrementally and at "deliberate speed," always, it appears to me, in response to external pressure. There was never a moment of exhilaration when the lid came off, like Antioch '68. And by the time I arrived in Reagan's first term, the pendulum was swinging a bit the other way: reforms in the Greek system had been tacitly undone, for instance. But the center held, and my college is healthy and thriving today.

Most of the talented faculty members began to leave for other institutions, and the few who were dedicated to rebuilding the Yellow Springs campus found themselves increasingly isolated.

I have a friend in Raleigh who attended Ole Miss in the early 60s, when James Meredith enrolled over the fierce opposition of the university hierarchy and state government. In the aftermath of the school's official hostility to integration, lot of Ole Miss's faculty left, all the decent faculty in my friend's view, and my friend left as well, for Chapel Hill, saying goodbye to his home state forever. Interesting that there was a similar faculty exodus after Antioch went whole-hog for hippie culture.

Antioch College became a rump where the most illiberal trends in education became entrenched. Since it is always easier to impose a conformist ethos on a small group than a large one, as the student body dwindled, free expression and freedom of thought were crushed under the weight of ultraliberal orthodoxy. By the 1990s the breadth of challenging ideas a student might encounter at Antioch had narrowed, and the college became a place not for education, but for indoctrination. Everyone was on the same page, a little to the left of The Nation in worldview.

Much of this conformist thinking focused on gender politics, and it culminated in the notorious sexual offense prevention policy. Enacted in 1993, the policy dictated that a person needed express permission for each stage in seduction. (“May I touch your breast?” “May I remove your bra?” And so on.) In two decades students went from being practitioners of free love to prisoners of gender. Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came.

I grieve for the place with all the sadness, anger and self-reproach you feel when a loved one dies unnecessarily. I grieve for Antioch the way I grieve for the hope of 1968 washed away in a tide of self-inflated rhetoric, self-righteousness and self-indulgence.

The ideals of social justice and economic fairness we embraced then are still right and deeply American. The discipline to turn those ideals into realities was what Antioch, its community and the generation it led was lacking. I fear it still is.

I hear it said that liberal Democrats jumped the tracks in 1968, and I nod, without quite grasping what that means. This case study helps my understanding quite a bit.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Lip

It's been a lousy year for me and reading books, so I've got to claim this one, even though it's a cheapie: Nice Guys Finish Last, by Leo Durocher as told to Ed Linn. It's a 1975 publication, apparently out of print. I came across it at a used book store in Chapel Hill.

I had heard this was one of the better baseball memoirs, and I would agree. Durocher was a really vivid character, and he was present for a huge swath of baseball history. His early life fits what to my mind is the dominant mold of the early days of major league baseball: he was an "ethnic" kid from New England. Durocher's family spoke French at home in Springfield, MA, and an early mentor of Leo's was Rabbit Maranville, a fellow French-American from Springfield. But his career reaches forward into the modern era: the 40s-50s heyday of baseball in New York City (definitely the heart of the sport in the literary imagination), network television and West Coast expansion. Leo was on the spot for many of the big episodes of baseball history: Murderers' Row, the Gas House Gang, Jackie Robinson's debut, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, the Miracle Mets. Early on in the book Leo is a wiseass rookie getting cussed out by Babe Ruth. By the end he's the sexagenarian manager of the Astros getting cussed out by Cesar Cedeno.

The narrative voice is so lively and there are so many good anecdotes in the book, it carried me along for quite awhile before I stopped to wonder whether Durocher was sanitizing his own story at all. In the first chapter Leo explains that, unaccountably, despite his humble son-of-a-railroad-man background, he got a taste as a teenager for fashion and expensive tailor-made clothes. From that I guess we're supposed to infer a whole lot about Durocher's life, the whole high-living and envelope-pushing strain: the pool sharking, the high-stakes gambling, his close friendship with George Raft, dating and marrying Hollywood actresses. There's got to be a lot that was left out of the story. What broke the spell as I was reading was Durocher's long, impassioned defense of Frank Sinatra's reputation. (Sinatra was a friend who offered to invest in the Los Angeles Angels if it would help Durocher land the Angels' manager's job. I suspect there is more to the relationship than that.) Then later Durocher resorts to some fairly crude score-settling with umpires and some of the players from late in his managerial career with the Cubs and Astros. He has some harsh words about Ernie Banks, which are striking since Banks was Mr. Cub, and which was exactly Leo's problem: Banks was such a favorite of the Cubs' owner, fans, and beat reporters, that it was hard for Leo to bench him even if he deserved it.

It would be interesting to check out a good Durocher bio, as opposed to autobio, and try to reconcile the rakishly charming hero of Nice Guys Finish Last with the ruthless SOB that others have portrayed Durocher as being. In his book on managers Bill James relates how the sportswriter Dick Young characterized Durocher:

You and Durocher are on a raft. A wave comes and knocks him into the ocean. You dive in and save his life. A shark comes and takes your leg. Next day, you and Leo start out even.

Of course, Dick Young was one of the meanest sons of bitches who ever lived himself, so factor that in.

As a footnote, the title of the book is the famous saying of Durocher's that he didn't exactly say. It seems he was actually discussing at some length Mel Ott and the New York Giants, a bunch of nice guys who didn't win as many games as Leo thought they ought to, and a sportswriter punched the quote up. And Durocher embraced the inaccuracy; he appreciated good PR as much as anyone. The pedigree of "Nice guys finish last" made it into this Luke Menand review in the New Yorker, of the Yale Book of Quotations:

“For lack of a better word” spoils a nice quotation—the speech is about calling a spade a spade, so there is no better word—and “Play it again, Sam” is somehow more affecting than “Play it, Sam.” But not all emendations are improvements. What Leo Durocher actually said (referring to the New York Giants baseball team) was “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” The sportswriters who heard him telescoped (the technical term is “piped”) the quote because it made a neater headline. They could have done a better job of piping. “Nice guys finish seventh” is a lot cleverer (and also marginally more plausible) than the non-utterance that gave immortality to Leo Durocher. But Leo Durocher doesn’t own that quotation; the quotation owns Leo Durocher, the way a parasite sometimes takes over the host organism. Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do. And so, whenever they can, they attach themselves to colorful or famous people. “Nice guys finish last” profits by its association with a man whose nickname was the Lip, even if the Lip never said it…

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

“It’s Not Just About Knocking Bitches Down”

Prompted by my sister-in-law, a bunch of us packed up the kids Saturday night and headed over to historic Dorton Arena to enjoy the spectacle that is the Carolina Rollergirls. It made for a fun evening, and I was struck by the aesthetics and ethos of the event—struck well enough to want to sound off about it.

The first thing to say is that Roller Derby Night is a festival of over-the-top fun with gender roles. There’s a distinct Riot Grrl vibe, and some of the skaters affect a self-conscious trashy-slutty image. I ain’t no lady, all of these athletes would affirm, I’m certain. This attitude is perhaps most obvious with the punning team names (e.g. the Trauma Queens, the Debutante Brawlers) and the alter-identities that the players adopt (e.g. Tsunami Sue, Sweet and Lowdown, Trudy Struction, and omigod, I just came across the best roller derby alias ever: Harlot O’Scara). There are cheerleaders of a sort who, far from being eye candy, tend to be scruffy guys who run around like maniacs holding hand-lettered poster board signs. One of the team mascots, for the Tai-Chi-Tahs, was a man who seemed to be dressed as a James Bond villain, petting a stuffed cheetah held in his lap.

I’m far from the first person to comment on the roller derby revival. It’s a pretty big phenomenon. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association boasts 30-some member leagues around the country. There’s a book and a TV show, evidently. Additionally, roller derby was the subject of some controversy in the feminist blogosphere a year or so ago. A good discussion took place at I Blame the Patriarchy, where Twisty made an anti-derby post (“proto-porn,” “kindergarten burlesque”) but then got some pushback from pro-derby commenters, including some women who play the sport.

I am loath to get embroiled in an argument about sex-positive feminism; I get exhausted just thinking about it. (The argument, not the sex-positivity.) Suffice it to say I come down much closer to the perspective of Robust McManlypants (fellow Carolina Rollergirls fan) and The Bellman (who relates what the Patriarchy wishes roller derby was like).

Maybe I haven’t been to enough matches to have a complete picture, but superficially, the skaters were really not very titillating. In helmets, knee pads, and elbow pads, they were outfitted for action at least as much as for display. (Some of them wore leggings. There may have been fishnets. Did they wear miniskirts? Maybe--I’m honestly not sure, but if so they were worn over their spandex workout shorts.) The most obvious thing to say about the skaters is that they were hard-working athletes, and they exemplified the fact that athletes come in all shapes, sizes, and numbers of visible tattoos. They projected toughness and confidence and determination, all attractive traits, but not ones that reinforce the patriarchy, seems to me.

Contra Twisty, I saw no fake fights a la WWF wrestling. There were some fouls called, and some hits that, even if they were legal, were a little more enthusiastic than was strictly necessary. I never got a firm grasp on the rules, so the climax (the Tai-Chi-Tahs came from way behind to snatch victory from the Debutante Brawlers) felt like a somewhat arbitrary result dictated by the officials. But that’s down to my ignorance. The match was a legitimate competition.

I will say, the two women who were hawking popcorn in the stands were eye-catching in their short skirts, plunging necklines, and loads of makeup. But these women were not Barbie dolls; while pretty, they were closer to Lane Bryant models. And given the anti-sexy profile cut by the popcorn vendors at a “mainstream” spectator sports venue, I read these gals as another variation on having fun playing dress-up. Opinions may vary.

Being a straight white guy, there’s nothing much good that can be said for me, but one of my trump cards is that I am the father of daughters, hence a prospective future feminist-by-proxy, or something. Bottom line, I was happy to bring my girls to the roller derby. It was to a remarkable degree a family affair, albeit one like a Bugs Bunny cartoon that the kids could enjoy on one level, and the adults could enjoy on a less innocent level. The kids supplied our rooting interests: one of the skaters is my oldest daughter’s hair stylist; another is the mother of a classmate of my middle daughter (who actually went and got skaters’ autographs afterwards).

The case of the popcorn vendors brings me to the other point I wanted to make. To an ESPN-watching guy like me, roller derby is an ongoing ironic commentary on big-time sports. I found it thoroughly refreshing. I went to two games at Raleigh’s RBC Center last winter, a NC State men’s basketball game and an NHL hockey game, and believe me, nothing happens at RBC that is the least bit spontaneous or un-slick. By contrast, I was charmed by the Andy Hardy, “hey gang let’s put on a sports event!” character of the Rollergirls. All the challenges of mounting an event were met in impromptu ways (albeit often clever and computer-savvy ways). The tickets you buy (generated by seem DIY. The uniforms are homemade, the play-by-play announcers are voluble and endearingly silly, the “scoreboard” is a PowerPoint-type setup projected onto a plain white panel on one side of the rink. The halftime contest was a gurney race around the derby track. In place of the big Zamboni machine that resurfaces the ice at a hockey game, the Rollergirls employ a dude pushing a dustmop to clean the track.

Carolina Rollergirls does have corporate sponsors, barely: they include some local bars and restaurants, a fair trade coffee distributor, a tattoo parlor. Anti-derby blogger Vicky Vengeance wondered whether someone is profiting from the exploitation of the rollergirls; personally, I can’t believe anyone really makes money on the deal. The sponsor list mostly represents a convergence of the hipster alt-community in Raleigh. Players, coaches, referees, and everyone else volunteer their time.

Incidentally, Dorton Arena itself is a kick to visit, a piece of futuristic kitsch like something out of “The Jetsons.” Someone once described it as “industrial origami.” The Carolina Cougars of the gloriously tacky, long-defunct American Basketball Association played there in the 70s. It sits on the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, and its most active function nowadays is to host 4-H exhibitions and livestock shows and the like. Different areas of the grandstand are labeled Poultry Science, Integrated Pest Management, etc. A nice touch for roller derby, in my opinion.

I certainly don’t know much about the history of roller derby; I prefer to believe there isn’t much history to it. I was reminded of the phenomenon of adult kickball leagues; it just seems like a bunch of friends who took roller skating, an aimless and unprofitable pastime from childhood, and decided to have fun with it, dammit, maturity and respectability be hanged. The Rollergirls crowd felt quite different than being at an RBC Center event, which is a little like a frat-house mixer--well-scrubbed, pro-corporate, pro-establishment and, yes, patriarchal. The roller derby crowd is more like a coming-out party for the kids in school who hated pep rallies, who may have liked games but hated jocks. The game is the thing, and all the surrounding trappings of the game are there to be laughed at and winked at.