Balls To The Wall: How Pinball Can Save My Soul

It is 1997. My mother is unhappy. She’s quietly contorting her face, pursing her lips and focusing her gaze on some inanimate object. I used to think this was meant to dismiss me, to erase me from the room, but I learned, after bringing home a report card of mostly Cs that this was actually a magnanimous show of mercy towards the injuring party.

My mother is unhappy because my father has brought a computer into the house. She thinks it will become “another video game system, something else to play with”. I’m 12 and this strikes me as unfair. What in life is more important than play?

Seventeen years from now, I will have been doing technical support for almost a decade. I sit in front of a computer 10+ hours a day. I don’t play games anymore. I bought a PS3 from a friend who needed rent money. It sits in one of my many arts and crafts drawers. I don’t even know if it works. I don’t want to know if it hurts. I mean works. I hurt. All over.

There’s an old joke or what have you about only getting to leave the French Foreign Legion when you forgot why you joined. I’m leaving tech now that I forgot why I got into it. Or rather, was made to forget.

I think I believed in the meritocracy of tech, that fat kinky trans women like myself could go far behind the monitor as long as we were good at what we did and didn’t interface with the public.

But I was an early adopter of Facebook and Twitter. I must have known better.

When you get interviewed for a job in tech they tell you they prefer young people with no commitments or family, people who have a wide open availability and won’t have to take time off. It’s easy to think you can age, indefinitely, while remaining unattached. But you can’t. That’s the point. You grow, you yield knowledge, experience, and manhours, and then once you ask for more stability, or space to have a life, they tear you out by the roots and plant someone younger, eager, less picky about wages.

It is February 2014. My online presence has been noticed by the marketing team of my employer. Management disciplined my boss for my tweets. She never tells me what I wrote to get her in trouble. A week later a supervisor reads through a month of my tweets, trying to catch proof that I was lying on my punch card.

A man who once drunk-hugged me at a company party and told me I was his family is now docking my pay every time I post watersports erotica.

Maybe we really did think we were all made equal through our knowledge and skills. And maybe we were, but others were made more equal.

It’s a Friday the 14th, my first day of self-determined unemployment.

I will call my best friend and ask if she wants to go to the Pinball Museum with me. Fifteen dollars a person, plus bus fare and food, is a little steep in my newfound straits, but to have and to hold, in one day, the escape and overwhelming relishing of play, to have that immediately is worth the cost of a month’s subscription to [insert MMO because I don’t play them].


I’m old. I’ve earned it. How old am I? I’m so old I remember when you made plans on the fly. I’m so old I remember when people thought people would get addicted to Dungeons & Dragons.

I’m so old I remember when I could eat sugary cereal for breakfast. When I could walk around in a swimsuit. When I could talk about my experiences without them being dismissed and spoken over.

I like to get to the Museum right after it opens. My friend and I split up the moment we get in, taking up whole rooms of machines to ourselves, to be the only living thing in the room. The machines are well-groomed and lovingly tended to, but their time has long since gone.

I understand, or at least I think I understand, the fervent community that surrounds pinball. It’s play, without ulterior motive. No downloadable content. No banner ads. My boss will never pressure me to make a work-friendly pinball persona to interact with company VIPs.

I never got into single player gaming. I’m more of a Mario Kart than a Skyrim. Online gaming promised it would bring us together. But I have never felt more “together” than when my brother and I had to fit 14 other people into our house for a 16-player game of Halo, or when we all sat in the backrow of the theater with our friends and played Advanced Wars: Dual Strike until the movie started.

Online gaming took that from me. I don’t even know how I fell for that pitch.

“You like hanging out with the people important to you and having fun? Well, how about a stranger calling you a fag and disparaging your mother for 20 minutes? THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE.”

Pinball gave that back to me, to a degree. Playing Roller Disco while my friend watches, sipping a coke, nodding along and making small talk about our partners. That means so much to me. I thought I’d never have that back again.

Dead men tell no tales. When I come back to the Black Knight machine next week, it won’t have an add-on, a “new episode” with transphobic humor that makes me re-evaluate my love and time spent on the machine.

Daniel Okrent, the founder/inventor of fantasy baseball, said that “there is nothing more interesting to you than your team, and nothing more boring to another person than your team.” I hope against hope that he is conscientious enough about social justice to realize how much that would resonate with me.

Gender and sexual identity, this thing we could all have our life made forfeit, involuntarily, at any time, for having, when it offends someone’s taste or politics, bores me to tears.

I like to wear dresses and kiss on pretty people. Sometimes they identify as women. Sometimes they don’t. I like to be called Mommy and spank people and then let them lick the spoon. I want to meet with other people who feel this way and talk about it. I want to engage in play. I want to trace magic circles.

That, to me, is community. Listening to your tired, rehearsed tirade on why “person” should be spelled with a y and how binary trans women are oppressing FAAB genderqueer people by insisting we belong in women’s spaces too is not community. It’s boring. I lack the emotional bandwidth at this point in my life to feel any other way about it.

I’m old. Like this Addams Family machine. Just let me have this moment to console and confide with it. We’re both old and overlooked by a society overtaken by a cult of youth and Web 2.0. But we’re loved, and have a lot of love and fun and joy to give.

photo 1
Just to remind you this piece is really about pinball.

The Addams Family machine is the first pinball I ever played, back in Phoenix, Arizona, in the single digit years. I know the layout of this machine better than I know most of my friends and maybe some of my partners.

And I still love it. Every curve, every chime, every reflection of the silver ball as it sashays up and down the playfield. It’s an obsessive, selfish, almost solipsistic love. The way I know I should love myself. In a sense, it’s not a game. It’s practice.

I have a notebook of all my pinball high scores. I’ve never shown anyone.

It’s a small part of me, almost infinitesimal, but it’s the only part of me not readily available to everyone else.

I’ve live-blogged my estrogen injections and first dates. I came out on Facebook, back when people updated their statuses in the third person. I detailed two suicide attempts on LiveJournal.

I just want something small to keep locked up. Something small and inane and without consequence. To assert to myself that my body and my life are not public commodities.

It will be hard, finding a new path in life.

I don’t even think I’ve ever been on an actual, earnest picnic.

I don’t know what I’ll do to make ends meet. Start over in a new career? Learn another trade? Write? Busk with my musical saw?

All I know is that there will be play, and I will sell my accordion, wear holey, mis-matching thigh highs so I can go to the Pinball Museum, at least once a month. To hole myself up. It will not be safer out when I come out again. Cathy Brennan will still be trying to get trans women kicked from their homes and fired from their jobs. Current and future employers will still find a way to read my private thoughts and punish me for them. Somebody, somewhere, will still be telling a hapless tech support agent how Obama’s out to get him, in hushed tone and timbre because he was told at the beginning the calls were recorded.

But if and when it all comes crashing down, I may regret getting a tattoo from someone who immediately skipped town after I got it, I may regret ramen for breakfast, but I will not regret the amount of play I allowed myself to have.

It is 1997 again. My mother is wrong. Computers do not become play. For me, they destroyed play. And if we all follow the signs and keep on truckin’, they, or rather the sociopathic so-and-sos that deem themselves the “owners” of technology and tech culture, will destroy it for everyone.

6 replies on “Balls To The Wall: How Pinball Can Save My Soul”

Thank you, Natalie. It never occurred to me this could touch anyone, but it emboldens me with so much resolve to keep writing to hear that it has. Thank you for taking the time to create an account to let me know.

I hope the piece, like your comment did for me, assures you that you aren’t alone.


My favorite is the Nintendo DS version because it allows or 8 players. The N64 one wasn’t bad, but I thought it was a little clunkier, not as polished as the others in the series.

I feel pinball is a game designed to be lost. It’s difficult, there’s a lot of chance, and you only have so much control over the play field. But that’s what’s great. You lose and you come back. To lose. But this time with a higher score, this time with more achievements. It takes time and patience but it doesn’t lie to you about these things.

Call of Duty is meant to be won. A horrible culture of abuse and harassment surrounds it, a collective territorial pissing. It is not designed with fun in mind. Competition, in-game purchases, yeah, but not fun.

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