Four nights a week, I disappear for hours at a time, leaving Serenity Caldwell behind. She isn’t much use where I go. Those I associate with know me only by a pseudonym; I am costumed beyond recognition. I step into a different life as I don new garb and fly down concrete floors. I get beat up. I perform feats Serenity would marvel at. And then I transform back into myself and head to bed.
The next day, I nurse new and unusual aches in unexpected places. “No,” I tell the concerned CVS cashier awkwardly eyeing three finger-shaped marks on my forearm, “I’m not in any trouble at home.” But that’s all I can say. All I can ever say. Because, really, how do you tell someone that you’ve become a superhero?
It’s not like I planned it this way. Growing up, most kids wish for masks and superpowers. Not me. My kid self would have been delighted to wake up one day and find herself with Jedi powers; I always fancied being the brains rather than the brawn. Not that we ever get what we want.
Have no fear, citizens
It starts quite by accident, with something ever so small: a seed of discontent in your current activities; boredom; craving something more. And there, in the shadows, your superhero life lurks, just waiting for you to take a turn down that dark alley.
The first meeting doesn’t leave an impression. A friend of a friend may be involved, and you agree, after being implored many times, to tag along to something that you think holds no interest. You may see a poster in the square, or spot an article online. It’s neat, you think, but nothing more than that. It’s only when you reflect on events that you can pinpoint the genesis of your origin story.
In a fictional city of millions, there may be only a handful of caped crusaders. In real-life gothams, superheroes abound. Secret lives emerge from projects you’re passionate about and from undiscovered talents that don’t necessarily fit into day-to-day life. They may start off as a way to pass the time after work or as a quick weekend activity. But it blossoms from there.
Some avenues will fizzle out before you even hit the training montage. Others show promise, but something down the line causes you to hang up your cape: You might grow disillusioned; you might have to make the hero’s choice and return to your normal life. Or maybe it fills a perfectly shaped metahuman hole in your life, happily coexisting with your other daily activities.
And then there are the anomalies: the secret lives that slowly engulf the public ones. You don’t really notice it creeping into your routine until it’s already too late. Before you know it, your bare-knuckled pastime has turned into your livelihood; your getaway vehicle has become your sedan; your secret lair, your office. The mask isn’t coming off any time soon.
A ship leaves a dying, apple-shaped planet
Every job I’ve held started in the shadows of a secret superhero life, and none more so than my work with Macworld magazine. Freelancers may understand the superhero comparison better than anyone, although it’s more Mystery Men than Justice League. At any time, you might be called upon to don your mask, fling on your cape, and rush to the scene of the crime — or, in more practical terms, write 900 words on deadline.
You juggle your life, meals, evening outings, and day job as you wait for a signal to flash in the sky. And when it’s been silent too long, you may even hunt danger on your own, hurling article proposals like fireballs into the ether with hopes of kindling interest. It’s exhilarating.
But freelancing takes a toll on the lone avenger; very few can pour their lives into it for more than a couple of years without burning out. I hit my limit around the one-year mark. As luck would have it, Macworld was hiring. When I moved to San Francisco and started working for the magazine full-time, I was thrilled in many ways. But it turned my whirlwind of activity into a soft breeze. I no longer needed to fight for anything (except, perhaps, a seat on MUNI). And while I loved — and still love — my job, sometimes a little bit of chaos keeps passion in your life.
So one day, I walked into a warehouse in Oakland and became a superhero.
Portrait of a superhero on skates
Picture, if you will, a costume far less sleek than what you’d expect from your average Marvel or DC star. We may share the tights, but the similarities end there. I can’t fly with a cape or engage super-speed; I use a pair of quad skates. My bones aren’t Adamantium-laced; I use crash shorts, knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, a mouthpiece, and a helmet.
In short: I play roller derby.1
If you know me, it may seem like an odd fit. (“Ren? Exercising?”) But I suspect that’s why I like it. The sport — and it is a sport, contrary to what you might have seen back in the ’80s2 — is intentionally designed to let its participants compartmentalize. By day, we are neuroscientists, filmmakers, and woodworkers. We balance our high-stress jobs with sobriquets and larger-than-life personalities.3 There are skaters who compete under their own names, but, even so, they transform on the track, leaving their off-skates selves on the sidelines. To get out on that oval, you have to be fearless.
That kind of mentality is almost antithetical to my daily routine. I don’t like confrontation; I have doubts, worries, and concerns. When circumstances change abruptly, I stress out. But somehow, when I step on that track, it all falls away. The spinning of bearings and the screech of wheels against concrete drown out my anxiety.
I often play as jammer4, the only position that can score points. I am the target of at least four opposing players at any given time — and I love it. I revel in the quickness of the game, which forces me to dart through millisecond holes and pick apart movements. I can charge a wall of opposing players with no hesitation, leaping past muscled women and dancing on my skates’ toe stops around those trying to knock me down.5
I like to think that part of the courage comes from anonymity: the ability to pull some skates out of a gear bag and become someone else. But it’s also that the derby community has built such an incredibly safe space for its players. Leagues are skater owned and operated, and nobody gets paid to put skates on a track. We’re all teaching each other, and we do it out of passion for the game. No one laughs at your first face-plant on the track; instead, we cringe in support, remembering our own rookie years. And it’s a place where female athletes are celebrated, not treated as second class.6
It’s empowering off the track, too. The athleticism alone required to participate in the sport forces me to cross-train with barbells and running shoes, while the mentality slips its way into my other projects. When you have nerves of steel on the track, it’s hard for that confidence not to find its way into your interactions elsewhere.
The adventure continues
I’ve had adventures at all angles. I’ve tried out activities that left me uninterested within days. I have on-again, off-again flings with others. My day job was once my secret life; now my roller derby exploits keep it interesting. It’s everything in balance that keeps my life in motion.
After all, who is Peter Parker without Spider-Man? Jean Grey without Phoenix? Bruce Wayne without Batman? Our projects and our passions — our superhero lives — let us keep our feet on the ground at other times. They push us to ask more questions, learn new things, and discover more about ourselves.
It’s sometimes scary to have a hidden identity. The inner mystery pokes and pushes at areas of ourselves we don’t want touched. But if you’re willing to take the first step down that dark alley, you may just uncover your inner superhero.
Illustration by Jacob Souva.7
Specifically, I play modern flat-track roller derby in the Boston Derby Dames, a league governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). WFTDA has over 150 member leagues, and hosts yearly international tournaments for the top teams in the country. If you’re interested in learning about the game, I suggest reading the WFTDA pages describing flat track and its gameplay. If you’re curious to see a game, check WFTDA’s member leagues to see if there’s a venue near you. ↩
If you had the pleasure of watching RollerJam or RollerGames, I apologize. Please forget everything you learned from those shows, as modern roller derby is very little like that. ↩
Derby names are intentionally pun-based and often replete with double and triple entendres. My favorite ones are those that manage to play off at least two of the following: the game, violence, and something that person loves. (I have a soft spot in my heart for a blocker name I saw at my first bout: Bloodbath and Beyond.) I skate under the name Artoo Detoonate. ↩
Basic roller derby lesson #1: There are five players on each team — four blockers, one jammer — with ten total players on the track. The jammer scores points by passing the hips of the opposing blockers; her blockers are there to aid her in scoring and to prevent the other team’s jammer from scoring. ↩
Basic roller derby lesson #2: Hitting zones. Blockers can only legally use their shoulders, hips, or booty to hit another player. Hits must be made above the knees and below the shoulders, and strictly on the front and sides — back blocks are illegal. ↩
Unlike almost every other modern sport in existence, the roller derby revival began with leagues exclusive to women, and has continued that way throughout the years. There is a men’s organization now — the Men’s Roller Derby Association — but WFTDA is treated as the gold standard. ↩
Jacob Souva has created illustrations and performed design work for Cornell University, Cameron Moll, and Mooncake Foods in NYC. He also launched a kid’s app for iOS called “Puzzld!” Jacob lives in the small, rural town of Cincinnatus, New York, with his wife and two boys. ↩