Men with brooms

Kristen, I’m going to confuse you again. Sorry.

And Micky might take a couple of days on this one, but I had to keep it all together.

***

I never thought I’d get interested in the sport. Curling, I mean.

Growing up, it seemed like one of those slow, boring sports- like golf (another sport I appreciated more as I aged). But my more experienced mind can appreciate the subtlety and strategy inherent in it.

I joined several years ago, with at least partial credit or fault going to Mom and Dad, who’d seen me through a tough period personally, and had suggested it as a way to get out, play a sport, exercise some more. At first, it was morbid curiousity, with the barest hint of interest. I joined a league with Dad and a few people he knew, playing the ‘new guy’ part to perfection.

But a funny thing happened on the way to inevitable, ineffectual disinterest. I actually liked it.

I’ve described curling as “shuffleboard on ice” to American folks, but that’s more or less where I’d start for anyone who doesn’t know the game.

Two teams, four players a side. Each team throws eight rocks in an “end” (like an inning in baseball, or a period in hockey), one at a time, from one end of the rink to the other, attempting to have their stones closest to the middle of the far ring at the conclusion of each “end”.  In our league, we play eight ends.

The concept is relatively simple. The execution is the beauty of it.

***

There’s a lot of times in life where things in my life haven’t gone as planned. If you asked me ten years ago where I thought I’d be now, I’d probably have had the presence of mind to say “I don’t have a clue”, but I doubt I would have thought here. Whether it’s here in Calgary, here doing what I’m doing, and with the people I know around me.

I’ve always tried to abide by the theory that you shouldn’t have regrets, because you can always learn from what you’ve done, and you’re a better person for it.  This isn’t to say I don’t like where I am. I like where I am. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have done some things differently, knowing what I do now. That’s where experience counts- and why it counts more than someone telling me that “this is how I should do it”.

Because sometimes, you don’t get the full effect unless you experience it for yourself. And there are so many areas where I can point at something and say “yeah, that’s absolutely how it is.”

***

There are four positions on a curling team- lead, second, third, and skip. The ‘skip’ stands at the other end of the rink, and calls the shots- holding up his broom as a line for whoever’s throwing, and telling the sweepers when the stone is off line, and needs to be swept. And yes, the skip yells that, so as to leave little room for interpretation.

The two players who aren’t throwing CAN sweep the ice in front of the stone with their broom, which accomplishes two things- it makes the stone go farther, and it makes it go straighter. So if it’s off line (which the skip sees from his vantage point), or doesn’t seem to be going far enough, the sweepers will sweep.

Being one of the least experienced curlers on the team, I usually throw the “lead” stones- the first two in any end for our team. There’s a clean sheet, and usually, easier shots. Often times, the lead stones are well out of play by the time the end is decided.

But there’s a difficulty inherent in that as well- you set the tone for the end. If your shots aren’t in there, it doesn’t set up well for your teammates after you who throw. Also, as the first one who throws, you often get to figure out the ice- how far the rocks go, and how hard you’ll have to throw them.

The lead is the set up guy- get off to a good start, and the end looks good. Miss a couple, and you may have to dig yourself out of the hole.

***

Two weeks ago, I came in to work on Monday not knowing what I’d be doing that day.

There’s a joke in there for those in the know that this had become somewhat normal course over the last little while, and it was that kind of gallows humor that was rarely far from my mind, especially in the chaos that had often descended on our workplace of late.

I came ready for the new job and new challenges, but braced to step back into the old one if need be. I had been told to prepare for that, in the uncertain tone of voice that had usually meant the worst was coming.

A step into the manager’s office. “Hey boss. What am I doing today?” (I don’t believe those were the exact words I used, but they will suffice for this scenario).

A pause. “We need you on the line today, I don’t know if they got your shift covered,” she said. “Maybe later this week we can get you started training… sorry, Dave.”

I replied with an understanding nod. “Sure,” I said. I’d been braced for it, after all. “I’ll go get ready.”

I needed a moment to gather myself, and was surprised at how disappointed I’d felt at that. I’d known it was possible that I’d have to wait another week. The old job was comfortable, was something I knew. But the bitterness… it surprised me a lot. I was bitter, and a little angry.

I swallowed it down, and walked out to the teller line to sign in. My old supervisor headed me off just after I signed on. I imagine she was confused, but I didn’t turn to look.

“Dave? We don’t need you over here. I got your shift covered.”

This time, it was me who paused. “Oh,” I said, sounding less affected than I felt. “Oh, good. I’ll let her know.” A few clicks, and I was out, and back to the boss’ office to give the good news. The anger had left, replaced by a lightness I hadn’t often remembered feeling.

All in all, a good start to the day.

***

Sometimes I throw second stones. I kind of enjoy that. The shots are harder, with some rocks in play (usually), and it breaks up all the sweeping I have to do in an end. Rather than sweeping the last six rocks, I sweep the first two, and the last four.

So rather than leading off, I come back to our end having seen a few rocks glide down, our end starting to set up for us.

Even as someone finding his way in curling, when I’m setting up to throw, I still feel the tension, the competitive drive to do well. The mind racing, thinking of the different pieces I have to get right to make a good throw, looking down at the line for my rock, wondering how the weight is, how hard I need to push off, if I can nail that in-turn without getting my elbow way out.

Take a breath. Rear back, push off, and make the throw. Extend, keep the knee tucked in, try and release clean, and at the broom, exactly where the skip placed it.

I’ve been trying to get in the habit of not watching my rock all the way down the ice. Because once it’s left my hand, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s on the sweepers and the skip.

***

I’ve often been accused (correctly, it should be noted) of being something of a control freak. And being self-aware, I can’t really deny that instinct. It exists. A psychologist could probably diagnose the total how and why of it, but I’m not really sure I’m interested in knowing. I’d be lost in that for a while, and assume they were right about it all because they were ‘professional’.

I see it at work, even this week as my trainer teased me about doing something that, well, I didn’t need to do anymore. That wasn’t my job. I could pass that on to someone else. Really, I could.

My response: “But I know HOW.”

Her continuation: “So do they. Let them do it.”

She was right, of course. Was it that I didn’t trust them? Or that I didn’t want to bother them if I could do it? Or a little of both?

I doubt there’s an easy answer. There aren’t any easy questions there. I want to be on a couch, I’ll stay on my own, thanks.

***

Emotions run high for me in sports, often more than in other areas of my life.

I’m not someone who expresses himself really, truly well, so I imagine sports has been an avenue for me to do that. I was a chippy, aggressive basketball player when I played in junior high. I get invested and irritated when I watch the Steelers play football. And even in curling, I’m berating myself quietly for bad shots as I slide back to the hack. At the end of the night, I’m usually relaxed about how things go, but during the game, I do want to win. Even in our rec league.

I remember one night in particular where I was steaming silently. My shots were missing, and my frustrating was building. I was ready to snap my broom over my knee and had brooded silently, ignoring the usual banter and quips that I try and take part in. It’s a game, and I’m usually decent at remembering that now, free from the little-man syndrome of youth and the easy irritation that accompanies it.

Dad was calling it at the other end that night, and I’d gotten down to set up for the shot, even after their second had thrown. ‘Let me throw a hard one,’ I was thinking. ‘Let me chuck a take out.’ I needed that. A high, hard one, something I could just wail on and throw. I saw one shot that might be that, and hoped he’d let me try it.

He did, tapping the rock that he wanted me to hit, and setting the broom down near it for my line. I reared back and let it fly.

I stared it down, as if my angry gaze would shatter the rock in two as mine flew down towards it, ignoring my usual sound advice about letting it go. The ‘thwack’ of my rock colliding with it was satisfying, and at least a slight tonic on what had been a frustrating night for my competitive side.

***

I had a frustrating day today, top to bottom. It started out awkwardly enough- getting up late, and leaving the house only to discover that I couldn’t lock my front door.

After repeated attempts to close it enough to turn the lock with what little brute strength I had (also worrying that the difficulty of turning the lock would strand my brother or Colette outside the house), I gave up, and waited for Dennis to come back from a morning trip out.

I stewed on the step inside, after looking at what possibly could have made our oddly-opening door go even more askew today. Why on Monday, why on a sleepless day, why when I already felt on edge and stressed and tired, and well before I’d stepped into work?

I’ve always thought that God had a purpose for everything that happened, and even in the midst of that stewing frustration, I felt it. I felt Him, speaking to me. It was strange in the midst of my brooding, and I think I only really came to that conclusion when Dennis had come back and I was driving, with Jars of Clay in my CD player, speaking words that seemed more poignant then.

My struggles aren’t more than trivial, ultimately. But they mean something to me, and I’m meant to have them.

***

Curling, like a lot of sports, can be cruel and darkly humourous.

You can call the perfect shot, feel it good out of the hand, and still have it not work. Sometimes it’s the ice. Sometimes it’s the sweeping, if they read it wrong. Sometimes your stone picks something up, and it peels off out of play, as you throw your hands up and wonder why.

Thought sometimes, it works the other way. As the skip yells and the sweepers sweep, you see something else- an alternative to the first shot, something you hadn’t considered at first. You didn’t get what you wanted initially, but you could make this work.

At the level we play at, we do this an awful lot. We’re not really good enough to hit our shots with any regularity, so often, we end up playing the one we didn’t see. Sometimes, you get to shrug your shoulders and smile sheepishly, knowing you lucked into something.

And then, there are still the times you make the shot, the one you thought would be perfect, and it doesn’t work.

***

I remember one night, in particular. I was curling late, so I had time to do something early. And there was something on my mind to do, something to make right.

The plan was there. I was going to go in, and make things right. It had worked so well in my head before… I’d planned it out, laying it out in a fashion that made sense to me, and had built it up in my head. It was going to be perfect. It was going to be how it shouldn’t be.

And as before, a funny thing happened on the way to inevitable victory and a happy ending. My plan fell apart. My words that had been there in my head weren’t there on my lips. The plan was blown up before I’d put the first steps in. I left in pieces, my world shattered.

I went home in sorrow, having barely made it up the stairs, mouthing for Dad to spell me at curling, knowing I was in no shape to play. I fell to my knees as I wept for what I had lost, the chance that hadn’t worked out as I’d thought.

It’s easy to look back now and say that it was for the best that it didn’t work, but it is not without some of that sorrow that I do.  I still feel like him at times, vulnerable, exposed, wondering where I went wrong, wishing I knew what was right, but hopeful that there is more out there.

***

If you’re not throwing a stone, you’re probably  sweeping.

This is a surprisingly taxing part of the sport, especially as one of the “front end” shooters. You sweep six out of eight stones, as one of two sweepers on the rock. And for me, it’s something I try and take pride in. I like being a good sweeper. I feel like it makes up for when I miss my shots.

The sweepers call the weight, while the skip (and occasionally the shooter) call for line. This does occasionally result in conflict- if the weight is light, but the line is good, the sweepers might want to sweep while the skip calls them off. Or if the line is close and the weight is up, the skip wants them to sweep, but the sweepers don’t want to get it too far. It’s one of the delicate balancing acts of the sport.

And one of the most satisfying- even when you’re not throwing, you can contribute. You’re still a part of it. Rarely watching, and never on the sidelines. Not until the end.

***

I had the chance to lead a “huddle” at work a few weeks back… kind of a meeting before we open, for all the staff. The twist with this one was, we needed an activity.

As someone who appreciates detail, I wanted to knock this out of the park. This was my first huddle, and it had to be great. I would accept nothing less. Something engaging, but still thoughtful. Not cheesy or trite or predictable. Quite the standard, I thought.

I found an exercise that had all the things I was looking for- “Broken Squares”, where pieces of paper were cut up into different sizes and distributed to different people before the huddle. They had to put the squares back together, with two hitches: They couldn’t speak to each other, and they couldn’t take someone else’s piece. It had to be offered.

It was fascinating and satisfying to watch, as something that could have been passed off in kindergarten was taken to like fish to a hook, and my coworkers very quickly got most of the squares back together without a word.

At the end, I got to say my piece, and while the basis was easy to pick out (“We should work together!”), I’d wanted them to look deeper. The importance of communication, not just in what we speak but how we say it, and not just in working together,  but- and while this WAS trite, I couldn’t resist the pun as I reached for a triangle and flipped it so it fit correctly- “how our pieces can fit in a lot of different places.”

I heard good feedback on this particular exercise, and was glad for it. I can’t change the world yet, but if I can be the one encouraging collaboration and good habits in my corner, I’m off to a good start.

***

One of my favourite traditions of curling is the drink afterwards.

In our league, the winning team traditionally buys the losing team a drink. And often, the losing team will offer to buy a drink back- can’t encourage tanking, after all.

But unlike some sports and leagues, curling was always meant as a fun game, a recreational game, where one goes to relax, and not get too involved in it. Even if some of our teams seem like they’re playing the Canadian championship by how seriously they take it during the match, there’s rarely a shortage of jokes or drinks flowing afterwards.

Maybe that’s why we love it. And maybe that’s why we take our sports so seriously. Because they don’t mean anything. We can throw ourselves into it without worrying that it’ll mean anything tomorrow. Because it’s a distraction, a safe place away from stresses and work and relationships and all those other things that drag us down occasionally.

And while there are times that our lives will be more important, maybe it’s having the option to release that makes it so. When we are going through those difficult times, we can appreciate the time away more, that we can yell and sweep and throw and compete and have it ultimately not mean anything more than what it is.

Or maybe it’s just a game. Men with brooms, sliding from one end of the ice to another, competing merely for the thrill of it.

Questions best left for another day… or another drink.

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5 thoughts on “Men with brooms

  1. André

    I really appreciated that post! As one of the few people that actually watched curling broadcasts during the Winter Olympics, I like how you intertwined these two aspects of your life. You should consider writing a book. I’d definitely read it! The length of the entry scared me at first, but then I wasn’t able to stop reading.

    I miss having you guys around! Good times!

  2. Colette

    Hey Dave, this is really an exceptional entry. I’m so glad you have this writing as an outlet because I know you do a lot of your suffering on the inside. That is, I live with you and often can’t tell for sure when you’re going through something. So thanks for this insight, and thanks to you, Dennis and dad for fixing our door =)

  3. Kristen

    I still don’t understand the sports stuff… don’t think I ever will. But that’s OKAY.

    Anyways, a good entry despite the sports (which I think Rob has given up on explaining to me…). I echo Colette’s thoughts about writing. It’s an important thing to keep doing. Kudos.

  4. Ben

    Hey Dave… man, you’re just one heck of a writer, really. I get the flow you have in all your texts once every three months or so…

    For my personal evaluation, there is one ultimate quality criterium for written or spoken or sung literature: if it makes me want to write, then it’s neither good nor remarkable, it’s really, genuinely great. This text, even if I just scanned some parts of it (you know my bad reading habits), and even if I didn’t really get the deeper meaning of some parts, made me want to write.

    Anyway…I’d love to write with you some more at BL…see you there. 🙂

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