On Curling, This Time In LA
Dearest reader: I write this letter by candlelight, to mournfully inform you of the passing of the prior form of this blog, in favor of chronicling my ongoing adventures to the darkest recesses of the globe, much like everyone else who randomly starts a Wordpress and/or Medium site. (Actually, it’s probably still better than half the people who write on Medium, who are likely more interested in pitching you on dumb crypto monkey jpegs.) This was not necessarily an unexpected occurrence; as prophesied, I have returned, tapping my now pincer-like appendages on the keyboard to regale you with tales of my latest curling adventure, which took place at the Rising Stars 5 and Under bonspiel at the Southern California Curling Center, down in Vernon, LA.
This was actually my second spiel in as many weeks; I was running it back, proverbially, with most of the same team I’d played with in Portland a week prior, as a tune-up of sorts. I was pretty thankful that we’d done that; the less said about our actual results in the Portland tournament, the better, but it was a great refresher course on how to call (and make) shots on far better ice than we normally play on. We might have gotten dumpstered (there was a non-trivial amount of bad luck involved, and I promise you that’s not just baseless salt speaking), but I felt like it was a legitimate learning experience — one where we could directly apply learned lessons and fix our low-hanging fruit mistakes. I was pumped, prepared, and ready to go — a mindset that lasted about as long as it took to get to the security checkpoint at SFO, where I realized (in the classic sinking-stomach-pit-feeling manner) that I had forgotten my entire toiletries bag, validating my lizard-brain impulse on the way out of my apartment that my backpack felt a lot lighter than normal. I consoled myself with the prospect that forgetting my razor (among other things) meant that we were guaranteed to win, since this would ensure that I looked like a half-shaven hobo with a three-day beard in any victory pictures.
I slept on the flight to Burbank, groggily exited the plane into the airport, called my teammates to tell them I was on the way to baggage claim, walked to the right for 30 seconds, exited the airport door, and immediately ran into baggage claim right fucking there, just out on the sidewalk, with my bag already on the carousel. Welcome to LA; now get out. (I then stood on the sidewalk for 10 minutes, because my teammates are normal human beings, who could not hope to compete with this level of ruthless logistical efficiency.) I got into the car, and asked them what they’d been up to in LA; they said “Cowboy Tears,” which certainly were two words.
Unpacking this a bit, it turned out that “Cowboy Tears” was the name of an album they’d seen on a random billboard, then pulled up on Spotify to start listening. They said the music was awful, but interesting. I said hit me; they played “Cowboys Don’t Cry.” The melody was quite catchy; the lyrics were really, really stupid, packing the approximate subtlety of a brick. As the rest of the album progressed, I played the game of trying to guess each song’s next lyric by rhyming the dumbest, most basic, first-instinct-if-you-had-to-freestyle word with the last word of the prior line. This heuristic was correct a little over half the time. I quickly looked up Oliver Tree (the musician) — he’s legitimately popular, with a few hundred million Spotify listeners, so I felt a little old for being totally unfamiliar with the music, but whatever. I found out Cowboy Tears got a 4.8/10 on Pitchfork, but they’re a bunch of haters who don’t appreciate entertaining trash. One of the songs — which had the word “California” in every other line, prompting my teammate to give me “three guesses as to the title of this song” — talked about traveling “from San Francisco to the Hollywood Hills,” which — hey, that’s me, Mom, I’m in the picture. I figured this was probably going to be a good weekend.
We had signed up for practice ice (and a practice game) Thursday night at the curling center, which turned out to be the ad absurdum implementation of the common curling club. I’ve mentioned before that curling clubs are usually nondescript, warehouse-like buildings in the middle of industrial districts; Vernon, LA is purely industrial (to the point where, despite most things being graffiti-ed and abandoned, nothing is actually sketchy, because there are simply no people around anywhere) and SCCC was legitimately just a gigantic warehouse, with very few trappings (other than the quite-functional six sheets of curling ice). The decor they did have only served to highlight the fact that a good 90% of the warehouse remained barren. (Good luck with filling the rest of it up; they had the flags of pretty much every country, every US state, all the military branches, and some random social movements up in the rafters and on a wall or two, and the overarching impression of the place was still “boundless stretches of blank gray walls.”) The practice was quite useful, because apparently some piece of insulation (or a dehumidifier or something?) had broken, so the ice was super slippery, causing stone trajectories to be a little weird, which took a little bit of time to learn. More importantly, however, it quickly became apparent that this meant everyone’s priority #1, at all times, was going to be “don’t fall over and die by cracking your head open.” This was an ever-present danger; during the course of the weekend, everyone on our team (including myself) fell at least once, as did a bunch of other people on other teams. (As far as I know, there weren’t any grievous injuries, which was quite lucky. Unlike Oliver Tree, I imagine most people at the spiel weren’t ready to be buried in California.)
It was actually pretty late by the time we finished up our practice game — late enough that when we headed downtown for dinner, the place we’d scoped out informed us that their kitchen had just closed. (In an ongoing weird subplot, when looking through prospective dinner places, we began to find out that a bunch of businesses in the area have started to shorten “downtown LA” to “DTLA”, which is not actually a real acronym, does not save any syllables, and generally sounds fucking dumb.) We asked the guy at the door for recommendations, and he pointed us towards “LA Cafe” a couple blocks away, whose menu was suspiciously wide-ranging (burgers! burritos! eggs! lobster! falafel!) for an open-late sidewalk cafe with extremely limited seating space. Full disclosure, here: the direct inspiration for writing a post chronicling my trip to LA was the 45 minutes we spent waiting for our food on a random sidewalk outside this cafe in DTLA. I think, in those 45 minutes, that I became completely desensitized to weird shit, in general; there was so much of it that it just began to wash over me, a baptism through immersion in sketchy garbage. I was in sensory overload; people and events I would normally pick out as notable or interesting in other social contexts, all of whom would usually individually inspire me to write whole vignettes, were just everywhere, at all times. Eventually, my brain started to centralize on a unifying, explanatory motto: “of course,” shorthand for just accepting everything as a matter of course, rather than trying to place it within any sense of normalcy.
To wit: of course the person ahead of us in line at the cafe had their dog in a Lakers #01 jersey. (This made me remember my brief jaunt into trying to buy a dog jersey as a gag gift, since my friend’s dog had the same last name as a star player, which is when I found out that dog jerseys are not very customizable; you cannot generally put names on them, nor change the numbering, presumably in part to prevent an outsize population of dogs repping #69.) Of course there was a guy who rode by on his bike, holding onto his second, riderless bicycle alongside himself, in an impressive balancing act. Of course there were a pair of crossdressers walking down the street, talking about how they had discovered and gotten a record deal for the New Boyz. There was a guy in a jacket and sweatpants walking along, who looked relatively normal until he turned around, at which point it was revealed, of course, that he wasn’t actually wearing a shirt under the jacket. It was St. Patrick’s Day, so of course there was a beet-red super-drunk guy in a full white suit, complete with top hat, and a lady in a robot suit consisting of several hundred glittering neon triangles. Of course, there were also like three different guys who showed up to collect pickup orders who all looked like various offbrand versions of Drake, and of course Drake was playing on Spotify the entire time we were waiting around, on possibly the world’s crappiest speaker system.
There was one guy in particular who looked very out of place in line — while most of the cafe’s clientele was of normally categorizable sketchy sorts (including the random guy in socks-and-sandals athletic wear, and us in curling jackets — of course!), and generally on the younger side (sketchiness tends not to have a long shelf life), this guy was in his mid-50s, and in full business clothes — but somehow not the reputable kind, if that makes any sense. Like — yes, he was wearing a suit, and dress shoes, but they didn’t quite fit right, and he looked maybe slightly drunk, or something about his hair — disheveled-ness? Slight use of conditioner to slick it back? — was off, or maybe it was just that he was 20 years older than anyone in the general vicinity, and dressed in a business suit at a kinda sus sidewalk cafe at midnight on a random Thursday night. My Spidey-sense context-clue alarm bells were proven vindicated when his companion showed up — a young 20something lady, of course. I started to listen in on their conversation, but got the gist of it pretty quickly; he was a model talent scout of some kind, and she was an aspiring model. Make of those terms what you will; I am not worldly, and therefore am still surprised by seeing this kind of stereotypical interaction play itself out before me, in real time, in real life. I felt rather bad for her, given the loaded business arrangement that I suspect was about to take place, at least until she led off her half of the conversation by, of course, talking about how much she had been enjoying shrooming lately. We finally got our food; it was okay. The burger tasted like a Big Mac.
Our Airbnb was in a reasonably decent condo with a proprietary parking garage. The garage itself was kind of a labyrinth; my teammate, who was driving, got lost in it a couple times during the course of the trip. I didn’t blame him; the way down to our parking spot was through a random shutter gate in the middle of the garage, and involved several completely arbitrary turns in both directions throughout the lower decks. I legitimately considered the merits of running a ball of thread along the right-hand-side wall on the way in. The room itself required three different keys to get in: one for the garage, one for the elevator, and one for the room itself. Having left DTLA in favor of three-key LA, we returned, and slept soundly.
Our first game wasn’t until fairly late on Friday, so we hung around the Airbnb and discussed life for a while. These kind of downtime moments are sometimes the best part of spiels, because it’s where you tend to learn random things about people, which is really the humanizing part of things. The curling part can be pretty businesslike; theres not a lot of time for small talk on-ice, and postgame, you’re more socializing with the other team than with your own. There’s a battle rapper who once had a line about “all bars, no personals, I don’t know these clowns,” extolling the virtues of avoiding involvement with others, but this would be terrible advice for a spiel. I’m lumping some different moments in here for the sake of writerly expediency, but — without this kind of time for asides, I wouldn’t have known that, for example, one of my teammates used to be a DDR mall rat, another currently part-times as a volunteer bartender, and the third is a giant Mets fan. These are super interesting things! It’s hard to cold-open someone and learn that kind of stuff off the bat, unless you’re better at it than me, or know what to look for, but when it happens and you do find it out, it’s tight. It felt, at least a little bit, like I knew these clowns; they were the cool clowns.
On our way to our first game, in a completely unprecedented circumstance, we got caught in LA traffic. It turned out that the major cause of the freeway blockage was, of course, a shirtless guy with a bicycle standing in the middle of the freeway facing the wrong way and yelling at someone in a car, stopping all the traffic in the lane behind it. He seemed like a pretty reliable narrator; I wondered what grievous offense the driver had committed. Our conversation turned to Jock Jams, so we played Volume 1 on the radio; it’s impressive how quickly snippets of songs can come flooding back from the recesses of one’s memory banks after a 20-year hiatus. I was, once again, pumped, prepared, and ready to go, buoyed by a duality of musical aesthetics that represent peak human achievement: fake-crowd-and-referee-whistle dance-song backings, and sketchy European-guy rap bridges. Our first game, as it turns out, was a complete mismatch, against a team who had just started curling; we won 18–1. If you have ever wondered what the score would be in a game of curling pitting beginners against reasonably experienced people, it’s that. I texted my roommates about this after the game; one of them replied “nice smurfing bro.” This game made me feel old, because I thought this team looked rather young, and then they started drinking postgame; they were recent college grads, and seemed pretty nice. I hoped we hadn’t completely crushed their spirits.
It was rather late by the time we left the club (yet again); we ended up back in DTLA looking for food, except this time we were on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with stars. I always thought you had to be at least moderately famous-famous to get your name on a star, but this is not the case; at least half of the names I saw might as well have been complete randos. Walking along the boulevard, I realized that I am not cool enough to live in LA; there were several clubs that were popping, including at least one or two where the attendees had legitimately nice formal wear on. A thought flitted around the corners of my mind: knowing how and why these were the places to be, let alone actually being connected enough to have someone let you in the door, were processes so far removed from the social circles I operate in on a daily basis that I might as well have been observing the trappings of a society run by space aliens. Some things were still familiar, though; in the span of one city block and about a minute of real time, I heard no less than four different, very famous songs featuring Snoop Dogg, verifying that I was, in fact, in Los Angeles.
Our quest for food, combined with my teammates’ exploratory urges, took us to a nerd-themed dive bar — Scum and Villainy, which had copious amounts of Star Wars decor on the walls, and themed cocktails based on a variety of sci-fi franchises. The Mad Max cocktail, when ordered, was finished up by the bartender spraying some sort of silver-looking aerosol/smoke over the top, and someone else yelling “WITNESS ME.” There wasn’t a dance floor, and the general milieu appeared to be “sitting and talking,” but that didn’t stop the music from being omega loud. The neon lighting was designed to make everything look vaguely surreal, and fake; my hand, which was now very red, was casting green shadows. We ordered bar food. My burger was white; colors were meaningless. It was a much better burger than LA Cafe.
On the drive back to our Airbnb, Spotify — having run its course of the actual Jock Jams Vol. 1 album — began to play “similar to Jock Jams” radio, which ended up with us listening to a song called “Magic Carpet Ride 07,” which was actually from 1995. This was mostly a house song, where someone was doing a vaguely Arabian(?) “a ri ki ki ki ki ki” vocal sample, but the main lyrics, later, came from someone else using a robot-voice synthesizer to say “if you wanna get rich, you know that payback is a bitch.” After about a minute of this, the song cut to a mariachi interlude, of course. I felt like we were listening to music that had time-traveled backwards from 30 years in the future.
This song wasn’t quite enough to distract from something that had been a growing theme throughout most of the weekend: LA’s drivers, and roads, were a specialized form of concentrated dog shit. The micro-scale urban planning of directionality made little to no sense; desired routes usually involved several blind, unprotected lefts across multiple lanes of traffic, half the signs weren’t even lit at night, and freeway navigation often ended up asking a lot of the driver: get onto the freeway, then merge across four lanes in the next 0.3 miles to get off at your next exit. I wondered if the road system had, perhaps, been designed by the guy on the bike in the middle of the freeway from earlier. In keeping with the roads making no sense, drivers’ behavior was often erratic, vacillating between overly aggressive (the default MO), yet occasionally — at times when it was most inconvenient, of course — wildly diverging and becoming passive-to-a-fault. I felt my teammate, who was our designated rental car driver, slowly being subsumed by this mentality. We had a conversation early in the weekend about how people generally consider traffic an externality, despite the fact that you are also the traffic; the more time we spent in LA, the more we did, indeed, become the traffic. We often pulled ultra-aggressive moves to hit exits (including during this drive back), mostly in anticipation of the person beside us doing the same thing. Something untoward would happen, and my teammate would honk post facto, even though this action contributed nothing to the situation at hand. As established, in prior, I am not cool enough to live in LA. But also, I don’t mind this, because LA driving is fucking wack.
Day 3 of the tournament had us up and about like machines: morning coffee and a light breakfast, pop over to the club, start curling. Our second game of the tournament was against a team from Utah; it was super close. We were ahead for most of the game, until we weren’t. In the last end, with the hammer, I had a (very difficult) shot to win, a thin double that had to hit a stone with significant weight and a margin of error of about an inch. I did not make it; I am not in the Brier. I resigned myself to, in a future practice session, setting up that exact shot 20–30 times until I can make it with some reasonable degree of consistency. In the interim, my mentality was something closer to “oh, bother.” I couldn’t afford to be too beat up about it; tournament scheduling meant that we had to turn around and get right back out on the ice for a second game, 30 minutes after the first one. This game was against the only other team from our club in the tournament, making it the obvious actual grand finals, as far as degree of meaningful-ness. We played super solid all game, made very few mistakes, and won 6–1, putting us in the C bracket finals on Sunday morning.
We stuck around the club for a while postgame, mostly to hang out, but also to watch some other games, out of curiosity. We tried our hand at some of the usual bonspiel sideshow traditions: crokinole, shorties. We DoorDashed some food from a place that ended up being three blocks away; whoops. I got the “gyro meat wrap,” which definitely had gyro meat of some form inside; it was pretty good. We watched the team that we had beaten 18–1 beat another team 14–0; if you have ever wondered what the score would be in a game of curling pitting beginners against “other beginners who took their lesson series six months ago, instead of extremely recently, and hadn’t curled since then,” it’s that. This put the team that we had played against in the finals of D bracket, which: good for them; bracket runners-up at their first spiel is actually a pretty cool achievement.
I will say, at the risk of coming off as sort of a dick, that watching this game was high entertainment, in the same way that watching a VOD of low-tier MOBA or StarCraft competition can be wildly entertaining, as you get to see the incredibly intriguing tendencies of people trying to do a complex thing entirely by ear, without adequate instruction or training. One skip was holding his broom at waist height, instead of on the ground, presenting a target that: 1. required his throwers to look up, instead of forward; 2. required him to spend energy to keep it steady, instead of allowing gravity to do the work for him; 2.5. presented a moving target, since he wasn’t totally successful in keeping it steady; and 3. vastly upped the degree-of-difficulty in correcting possibly incorrect lines on subsequent shots, given that the ice on the ground has lines that can be used as reference points, and the middle of the air does not. I wasn’t super worried about (3), since the called lines were quite suspect: one skip called for a shot with about 20 feet of curl, which was somewhere between 2 and 5 times what the stone would actually do. Another shot was called where the skip wanted the stone to end up in the center of the scoring area, but presented the broom target as “also the center of the scoring area,” ignoring the fact that the stone would probably not, in fact, stay on a straight-line trajectory, as per the literal name of the sport he was currently playing. At some point, someone threw a shot directly into the boards, which is the equivalent of walking up to your lane while bowling and dumping the ball straight into the gutter. I present no judgment here, for what it’s worth: if I had signed up for a competitive tournament directly after taking my first lesson series, I would have been hot trash.
On the way back to our Airbnb, Spotify dove deeper into the recesses of Jock Jams-alike radio, playing a song called “People Are Still Having Sex,” which was an early-90’s house song consisting of a dance track in the background and, in the foreground, some guy with a radio-announcer voice talking about all the ways that people are, and will continue to, fornicate, in various places throughout the world. This information was imparted with great gravitas, complete with grand pronouncements of phenomena accompanying the sex-having, e.g. “lust keeps on lurking.” I felt like we were listening to music that had time-traveled backwards from 69 years in the future.
On Sunday morning, our Airbnb — which, as mentioned, was a relatively modern apartment in a condo building — required us, of course, to drop off our keys in a random 7–11 a mile away from the building. I took this jaunt as an opportunity to start mentally cataloguing one of the trends I’d noticed throughout LA, which was the prevalence of billboards for different sleazy personal injury attorneys. I constructed a rough estimate of how likely each of these law offices would be to win my hypothetical traffic-accident court case, based solely on their advertising copy. At the low end of the scale was “iAccidentLawyer,” which was bizarre branding (was I supposed to call this guy for traffic accidents where I was driving my iPhone?); his billboard tagline was “Go for the win!”, which didn’t inspire much confidence in actually getting the win. Slightly higher on the scale, but still low overall, was “Sweet James,” which I’m pretty sure is the title of a UGK song; I’d rather my personal injury lawyer avoid proximity to Southern pimp-rapping, although maybe that’s actually what you’d want. (I Googled this guy and he’d recently divorced a reality TV star. Nice.) In the middle of the pack were some guy who’d had obvious facial plastic surgery (“Call Jacob — we win!”) and Jacoby and Meyers, who probably were the real leaders in actual effectiveness because they didn’t feel the need to use headshots on their billboards. (They did have a Dodgers logo, in case sports-team rooting interest plays a part in deciding your injury settlement.) My personal pick, however, probably ended up being the Law Offices of Larry H. Parker, whose billboard just said “Tired of Lawyer Billboards? Call Larry H. Parker!” — I figured I might still lose my case, but at least my legal representative would have a moderate sense of humor. On this billboard, which invited viewers to call the company’s offices, there was no phone number provided — only a website URL, of course.
In the tournament’s C finals, we scored 5 points in the first end, an extremely auspicious start; cool, I figured, we can play pretty conservatively from here on, and coast. We then gave up 5 points in the second end, at which point I realized this game was about to be a hard-fought, back-and-forth clown fiesta. I learned things about curling from this game, both about strategy and the laws of physics. Strategically: I learned that it is likely correct to play a shot that you 100% know, rather than a higher-upside shot that you’re only 80% confident about; the reason we gave up 5 points in the second end was that I moved the target for my second shot a couple inches to the right (trying to find a better line), threw my second shot at exactly the same weight as my first, then watched in horror as it hit a scratch in the ice that didn’t exist on the original line and curled exponentially further inward than everything prior, landing somewhere completely useless. We gave up 4 points in a later end when I actually 100% executed my intended shot, perfectly splitting a pocket of space between two opposing stones on a takeout, only to watch (again in horror) as my stone, rather than transferring its kinetic energy to the two stones it contacted, instead barreled its way through the pocket, forcing itself out the back of the scoring area entirely and leaving the other team with a completely open draw. I now know that about 3/4 of a stone-width is the exact minimum amount of gap needed to make this happen, and will never call that shot again in my life. This put us down by 1 going into the last end, where my teammates hit all their shots, bailing me out strategically; we ended up with 3 stones in the scoring area, leaving the other team with a last shot that consisted of a fairly difficult freeze on a line that nobody had thrown for half the game. They missed; we won, and were C bracket champions — C for cowboy tears, C for cool clowns.
Post-tournament, we went over to Smorgasburg LA, which was an open-air food-tent festival that apparently runs regularly on Sundays. On our way in, there were people in V for Vendetta masks protesting animal cruelty, in some form. I got some super fatty, overpriced brisket; it was quite good, but the amount of fat definitely constituted some level of cheating the culinary taste-evaluation process. On our way out, we passed by a guy in a full Darth Vader costume, of course. One of my teammates pointed out that the building-width sign on the parking garage said “Downtown LA;” I wondered if this was, in fact, a different place entirely than DTLA.
At some point, we had reset the radio to playing actual Jock Jams. It took until our trip back over to Burbank Airport for Space Jam to randomly play, which was a pretty fitting capstone to the entire weekend. The second fitting capstone was that we missed the exit to Burbank because we were collectively distracted by a building-side mural that depicted a Despicable Me minion saying “E=MC2” to an unidentified blonde comic-book girl. We wondered about the inherent purpose and meaning of this display, but we really shouldn’t have, of course.