On Curling, In Nashville
At the risk of succumbing to the equivalent of carcinization for personal online writing, where everyone who spends time and effort recording words into the online void eventually becomes a travel blogger: I went to Nashville this past weekend to play in a bonspiel.
More specifically, I played in the Tee Line Open, the inaugural, eponymous bonspiel hosted by Tee Line Curling, a new (as of late 2021) dedicated-ice curling club in Nashville. I was a last-minute fill-in of sorts on our team, having accepted an invitation to join less than a month before the spiel, replacing another member of our club whose ability to play had unfortunately been superseded by external life obligations such as “selling her house and moving to another state.” (Trivial concerns, really; their new house will still be there a week from now, but the spiel won’t.) I’ve learned, over time, that it’s correct to treat these types of curling invitations similarly to the first rule of improv: always say yes. They are butterflies, flapping their wings, and occasionally an unpredictable tempest stirs; for example, while playing at a spiel last year, I accepted an impromptu offer to fill in for a game as a spare for another team led by a nice older couple. We exchanged contact info afterwards, and when they needed a fill-in for a spiel a month later, they invited me out to Chicago, where I stayed in their house for the weekend, met their son (who was also nice), and played for their team. This, all because I happened to be sitting at a table at a specific time and place when someone asked for a willing player; in another life, I briefly left to use the restroom, and the timelines diverge. If you are reading this in the future and wish to prevent an unspecified assassination, please feel free to use this information as a starting point for your history-meddling.
I hadn’t played with the other members of this team much before this. I’d skipped for one at a spiel a month before, and played with the other two for three weeks’ worth of weekly leagues, but I was not the skip for this spiel, and three games’ worth is about the equivalent of a first date, for curling. You know immediately if the chemistry is super off (it wasn’t, in this case, which was a good sign), but whether you really-really mesh well is a bit of an open question; you haven’t hit the rough spot in the relationship yet. Will you survive the game-performance ups and downs — or even just the constant always-on social obligations — of an entire weekend spiel? It’s a hard question to answer. In general, for better or worse, I tend to be a blank slate with teams I haven’t played with much. Show no salt (a good maxim for life, really), and remain as even-keeled as possible — an attitude born of realizing that being on the other side of negative emotions kinda sucks, which led to a fair bit of introspection as to my own past failings in this regard, and a desire to improve. I’m not exactly naturally ebullient; more of a slow burn, personality-wise. I’m painfully self-aware of this, and often wonder if my demeanor is mistaken for apathy, or purposeful standoffishness, or any number of other things with negative connotations. It isn’t, I swear — I’m just awkward and often default to analysis-paralysis in social trappings — so I had to hope that my more-outgoing teammates would be relatively forgiving of this. I figured, at a minimum, if I hit all my shots, they probably would be.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Nashville club. Nashville curling, as an organization, had existed for a while, but their facility was new; they’d just opened up several months prior, and this was their inaugural spiel. I was initially dimly aware of the story behind the new club, but it came into clearer focus as the weekend progressed, starting on my ride to our hotel after arriving Thursday night, where my teammates — who had flown in the day before, and gone over to the club to check it out — described it as “one of the best curling club experiences we’ve had, and we haven’t even curled there yet.” There was a large open bar and restaurant section; there was a four-lane bowling alley. Your average curling club is a nondescript, rectangular-box-shaped warehouse in the middle of an industrial district, placed and sculpted as such because this type of locale is where real estate overhead is cheap, and building amenities past the bare minimum of a few sheets of ice and a small bar is prohibitively costly. Cash rules everything, and your local curling club likely operates on a relatively shoestring budget; building a multidimensional entertainment facility is several bridges beyond the capabilities of most average clubs. Yet here was Nashville, swaggering in, a monolith appearing out of nowhere; I was the ape, looking up, excited, curious, fawning. I had questions.
I started to piece together a narrative in my head, starting with some articles I’d read several years ago, about a team of ex-NFL players who had discovered curling and had Olympic aspirations. There was quarterback Marc Bulger, defensive end Jared Allen, linebacker Keith Bulluck, offensive tackle Michael Roos, and — occasionally — tight end Vernon Davis (from my hometown 49ers) — all former All-Pros or Pro Bowlers, who had a fair bit of cumulative name recognition that would register with an average fan. I’d mostly forgotten about this team, other than when they would pop up at a random high-ish profile spiel; they lost by a lot to Team Shuster at one point, but getting stomped by the reigning Olympic gold medalists isn’t exactly shameful. One of the billions of things tucked somewhere in the crevices of my neurons, to be forgotten until otherwise directly prompted, was an idle curiosity as to how this team’s journey into their new sport was going. It wasn’t until I saw the entrants list for the Nashville spiel that my brain retrieved this particular Ark from its dusty box in its overpacked warehouse: there, in the bottom right, was Team Bulger, with Jared Allen on the roster (as well as two randos who I didn’t recognize at all). I knew, then, half of the story: Marc Bulger lives in Nashville; Marc Bulger is a former NFL player who has a lot of money and a passion for this niche sport; Nashville opens up a swanky new curling club. The dots drew lines between themselves; I wished that I had the excess capital to indulge my passions, as such.
Our first draw was Friday, 9 AM Central, so my first impressions of the club were about the most honest possible — the unfiltered sort, stemming from the hazy mindset when you don’t quite sleep enough the night before, and your brain’s processing capacity shuts down a little, only allowing primary narratives to worm their way to the forefront of your consciousness. My teammates had been correct; this club was nice. It was huge, first of all; the bar/restaurant portion seated probably 100 or so, before you even got to the curling in the back. I’ve been awed when walking into curling clubs before, but usually it’s more from surprise — a pleasant subversion of expectations, if you will. I mentioned that most clubs are nondescript, externally, so the “wow” factor delays itself a little; you enter a sketchy door on the side of a random building, and all of a sudden you’re in a well-lit, high-ceiling, welcoming lobby with several sheets worth of 150 feet of open space in front of you. It is a little like entering one of the camping tents in Harry Potter for the first time. The Nashville club had none of this bait-and-switch; damn, this place was big, and you knew it from the get-go.
In a theme that extended itself to the rest of the surrounding Nashville area, the design of the club was also very “new money.” Since the drive from the airport the night before, I’d noticed that Nashville was an area that seemed to be split between generations; half the buildings were rather rustic, houses and storefronts approximating the look and feel of an Old West saloon, and the other half were aggressively Modern: big plate glass windows, strings of lights, no deviation in their contours — a design built to distance itself from the former aesthetic as quickly and apparently as possible. The club fell neatly into this latter bucket; it had the plate-glass, it had the lights. In the interior, it had nearly 30 TVs, in service of various purposes — mostly showing ESPN on repeat, although a couple showed overhead feeds of the curling houses. I have been to more traditional curling clubs than this; Chicago, for example, was a very “old money” club. It was built in the 1940s; there were wood columns, a mini-museum showing the history of curling, and a row of portraits near the ceiling, showing 70+ years of the club’s yearly-elected presidents. (The first fifteen or so were depicted in full Scottish regalia, complete with kilt and pipe, which I estimated had about a 50% chance of being a committed-to bit, and a 50% chance that that was actually the attire prevalent in the club at that time.)
I express no preference between new and old aesthetics; they are both interesting, unique and quirky-cool in their own ways. I will say, however, that the Nashville club is still clearly figuring out the purpose of some of its accoutrements. They’ve done the hard part, which is “have TVs to begin with,” but — in classic first-go-round style — getting 90% of a thing right tends to make the missing 10% kind of obvious. In this case, the TVs around the curling area probably could have served a more directed purpose; the overhead-house views only showed one side of the ice, meaning that spectators missed action on any ends played towards the far side of the sheet, which didn’t have cameras. The curling sheets themselves also had TVs showing ESPN, hanging over the middle of the ice, which were more distracting than anything; curling is very much an information-synthesis game, requiring you to align and apply a large number of data points in real time: timings, lines, biomechanics, etc. You don’t really have the headspace to allow a random interview with Giannis to intrude on the edges of your vision when you’re about to throw a shot; I found myself wishing these screens had been directed toward useful-information purposes — electronic scoreboards, or the like. I don’t begrudge any of this, though; this is their first spiel. They’ll figure it out.
Auspiciously, we won our first game by a fair margin. That put us back on the ice in the mid-afternoon draw; in the meantime, we checked out the buffet, and the curling-supplies trailer out back, which had a space heater that could probably have lit someone’s leg on fire if they stood too close. (It was below freezing outside for most of the weekend, so this was a fair setup, all things considered.) The awkward several-hour-with-no-nap timeframe between games was just long enough for jet lag and overall fatigue (from getting up at 5 AM West Coast time for our morning draw) to kick in; by the time our second draw rolled around, I was on complete autopilot, a blank slate now not by choice, but by force of induced lethargy. As it turns out, this is apparently a sweet spot for curling; I hit basically every shot this game, as a perverse clearheadedness arose from my overall brain-mire. Just do the thing, over and over again; it’s easy — the broom’s there, throw it to the broom. What else do you have to worry about? We won; postgame, there was traditional broomstacking. The topic of conversation turned to DnD characters, and Critical Role. I knew of these things, but not enough to approximate talking to other human beings at a significantly higher degree of difficulty than normal; I was suddenly, acutely aware that sports bars were rather loud, in general, and had many distracting, moving-color sights scattered around the average patron’s purview. Later that night, we went to a barcade; there were posters for GWAR and Alabama Thunderpussy on the walls, and a working SNES. I had thoughts about target audiences, and the purposes of the moving parts that pass you by in random corners of the world, but they were too tangential and foggy to collate effectively. Our team agreed that we were gelling reasonably; we returned to the hotel, where I slept, quite soundly.
We won our third game the next morning, putting us in the semifinals of the tournament at large. This was farther than I’d actually made it in a curling tournament with any team before; going 3–0 and landing in A bracket semis is nothing to sneeze at, in general. The prior night’s assessment was correct; we were, in fact, gelling. I started to notice the signs of team chemistry, the things that you could mistake for being individually determined until you play with a team that doesn’t support them and realize they don’t appear in isolation. For example, my timing measurements were on point, but only because our other two frontend players were reading the same times, allowing us to corroborate (or cross-check one another when someone was off). Our sweeping was effective, because we had a rhythm and communication system going; we took the same sides and the same positions each end, and cross-talked with our skip to ensure line and weight assessments aligned in real time. I was making a fair percentage of my shots, but only because our skip was calling the games well, putting us in positions where we didn’t have to hit low-percentage hero-ball circus garbage to stay afloat. More than once, our skip also hit some tough shots to bail us out of ends where things had gone less than optimally; sometimes, you need the execution alongside the chemistry. We rolled like this all the way into our fourth game, where we played to a 3–3 tie after 5 ends, gave up 5 points in the 6th end, and immediately conceded. Unfortunately, unlike some clubs, our games were not being livestreamed, so there was no chat in which one could drop a requisite F.
This loss pushed us into the consolation bracket, meaning that we had to play in Saturday night’s final draw, so we stuck around the club in the interim. There were plenty of bonspiel sideshow traditions on display: I lost two dollars playing a game of “ends,” where you bet a dollar to draw a random playing card indicating the team and score of the next end of a spectated game, and win if the score matches your card. (One end resulted in a measurement where the scoring team ended up with one more point than it looked like they had from a spectator perspective, causing the guy next to me who had the 1-point card for that team to yell “that’s fuckin’ bullshit” in a heavy Southern drawl.) Occasionally, a team would volunteer for a broomshooter, which is where the four members of your team take shots off glasses attached to a ski, while the rest of the room chants at you: “broomshooter, broomshooter, sweep, sweep, sweep.” (The same team, I would charitably estimate, accounted for about 75% of Saturday’s broomshooters. For the other 25%, I caught members of this team taking shots alongside the broomshooting team anyway. I judge not; I am merely an observer.) Briefly, I saw a crokinole board at someone’s table. The club might have been new, but the old hat had definitely made its transition.
As Saturday night rolled on, however, one importantly new aspect of the Nashville facility began to come into focus. It was probably 7 PM or so before I realized that the patronage of the club was, numerically, well past the average Saturday-night crowd at a spiel. There were a non-trivial number of people there who were completely unaffiliated with the hundred-person curling tournament; they were there to bowl, or drink, as part of a night out on the town in Nashville. A lady walked around in thigh-high fishnets; I wondered from whence this person had come, and what their driving purpose was in life — the overarching circumstances of one’s world that would culminate in an appearance at a hybrid curling club/bowling alley/bar, on a random night, in this attire. A reasonably drunk guy asked me — while I was standing, holding my curling broom, watching the curling matches currently underway, near the bracket outlining the seeding and results for the weekend’s curling tournament — whether there was a curling tournament happening.
I realized — placidly, amidst the noise and haste — that my earlier assessment, the picture I had painted with the filled-in dots between NFL players, was actually false; this club was not a rich man’s vanity diversion. Rather, this was a smart business venture. Curling clubs are somewhat notoriously insular, and the sport ritually suffers from onboarding issues. Every curler is more than happy to talk your ear off about how the sport is super fun, and seriously, have you considered trying it, anyone can curl, really, it’s very accessible, your local club’s probably offering lessons right now, just look it up — but it’s hard to convince people to go to a singular-purpose destination with no prior interest. There are no visual aids; you must be silver-tongued. As curlers, we love to evangelize, but we are clearly not good enough at it, given the average club membership increase in non-Olympic years. However, a facility like Nashville’s — which drops the sport right in front of uninitiated onlookers, confronting the unwashed masses with the elusive truth that yes, this sport is very playable and really fucking fun — has the potential to do wonders for curling’s conversion rate. I heard, in passing, that the club’s instructional lessons were sold out for many weeks in advance. It’s rare that you show up at a place and are like “wow, this could legitimately be the future;” shout out to Marc Bulger. I hope your thing works and you inspire a bunch of copycats.
We won our Saturday night game, placing us in the consolation bracket finals on Sunday morning, in the salty runback rematch against the team we’d beaten in our third game. Alongside 20 or so other people also left over from the last draw, my teammates closed down the facility by drinking and playing the curling minigame of shorties. I participated in the latter, which was reasonably entertaining in a dumb-but-fun manner, but not the former; afterwards, I designatedly-drove our team to Waffle House, where, as we were walking in, a random guy in the parking lot told us to “stay safe and have a good night.” To paraphrase one of my teammates: “that’s what you want to hear at 1 AM in a Waffle House parking lot, right?” The breakfast food, thankfully, proceeded without incident; our waitress was very nice, and at a table across the restaurant, I saw a guy with very, very large hands, like somewhere between 1.5 and two times the proportions of an average human’s. I wondered, idly, about this person’s life story, as well.
We lost our final match, unfortunately, in a frustrating manner — a close game, where slight misses here and there compounded, digging us into an increasingly deeper hole; we never quite found a momentum-swinging shot to claw back out. In an odd quirk of timing and logistics, we were bagpiped out onto the ice for a pre-finals ceremony after we played our finals match. The Nashville club has three sheets of ice, and therefore can only run three simultaneous games, yet there were four brackets in the tournament, so us consolation-folk got pushed to an earlier draw than the rest of the finals. I felt slightly self-conscious, partaking in this ritual; there were six teams in their full curling attire, and then us, in street clothes. If Saturday night’s crowd had been around, I figure I could have asked someone whether a curling tournament was happening.
On the way out of Nashville, going back to the airport, I noted some of the local character that we’d been missing, owing to our having performed well enough in the spiel to earn the right to stay at the club and play a bunch of extra games. An oversized horse statue with some sort of logo on it sat, abandoned, on an empty side road between two large, under-construction office complexes. A local realtor had bought ad space on several successive highway-side billboards, and had a different smiling headshot in each; I wondered how long the photo shoot had lasted, and how many ways they had repositioned his head before they found a set of three or four angles that were just-right. The 18+ (BYOB 21 or over) gentlemen’s clubs on the roadside (which were pretty numerous, honestly) looked positively drab, their daytime lack of neon lights exposing their gray, rectangular exteriors. If it weren’t for the faded pink on their signage and their prominent geographical placement, one could have almost mistaken them for curling clubs.
We dropped my frontend teammates off at the airport; I had an hour and a half to kill before my flight, and my skip was nice enough to drive me to a local bar/restaurant, to watch the AFC Championship. We talked about sports, and life, and cats, and watched the Bengals win: a cat team, who, for most of my life, have been bad at sports. The group at the table next to us had full Bengals attire on, and was exuberant; good for them. I hope they win next week, too. We returned to the airport; I said my goodbyes to Nashville. I thought about the alternate timelines, somewhere, in which I didn’t receive or accept the invitation to this spiel. I thought, specifically, about how those timelines probably sucked; this weekend was great. I would love to play in the 2023 Tee Line Open, and would highly recommend curling there, both to experienced curlers and the relatively uninitiated — and to the latter: seriously, have you thought about trying curling? You don’t need to be super athletic; it’s a pretty good time to get into it, given the Olympics; your local club is probably doing a lesson series right now, you can look it up if you want, it’s very accessible, I promise…