It was right around the second time my head bounced off the ice that I realized I may not be the next Herschel Walker or Michael Jordan. (Well, okay; maybe I was the next Michael Jordan if all I ever saw were breaking balls.)
Learning a new sport in my mid-30s seemed a quaint aside to everyday life when I signed up for my first curling league last fall. I anticipated it would be foreign to me at first, but I figured I'd pick it up like a larger version of an air hockey table. Give me a few cracks at it and I'll be mildly competent.
All of which ended up being true at the margins, but did I mention the head-bouncing-off-the-ice thing?
Learning a new sport in your 30s isn't like picking it up in gym class. For one, the games are generally harder out in the real world. ("We're going to play dodgeball today. Most of the game's plot is located in the name. Get started.")
Also, your body doesn't react as nimbly to a new set of muscles being called upon in new order. After my first two-hour session, my slide foot and lower leg forced me to limp around the office for three days.
Your brain doesn't pick up the cultural nuances as well, either. When you were a kid, you made up whole sports leagues around unique ways to combine three Super Balls, a tree limb, and the unique configuration of the garage and fence behind your house. Now learning a 600-year-old sport requires more repetition than a drive-time radio ad. ("1-866-your-turn-to-throw. That's 1-866-your-turn-to-throw. 1-866-throw-the-damned-stone.")
Corner guard? Is that a thing? Sure, why not?
Stepping onto the field of play takes 30 minutes of preparation in curling, with such non-intuitive tasks as sweeping all the ice shavings off the rink and then immediately sprinkling the whole sheet with water in a step called "pebbling." (Friction: we work on ice, too. Surprise!)
Even helping with all of that setup doesn't remotely assist you on where to stand and where to stop. Or how to stop, which is how the head-bouncing occurs. (Friction: we work on ice, but don't get cocky. Inertia's pretty badass, too.)
Imagine you've dragged your significant other to the softball field to fill out a spot on a co-ed squad for a week, but they have never swung a bat in anger in their lives. Where to stand? Where to swing? What do I do with this sphere when it comes after me? That person cares about you very much to put up with such potential embarrassment. So buy them the first round afterwards, y'know?
For most of the first league session (three months), I had little idea when we were winning or losing. When my misbegotten team (aka, misbegotten the new guy; poor bastards) finally were on the verge of winning in the penultimate match, my teammates looked at each other with huge grins and muttering aloud such statements as, "I think we maybe possibly have this one." I knew they were trying to say we had clinched the match already, but I really had no idea if it was true.
True story: wooden scoreboards are posted at the end of the ice for each match. The score is listed in plain sight at all times. The scoreboard might as well have been etched into the walls of a pyramid for the first six weeks for all its readability to me.
But by the end, the sense of accomplishment that came with the tumblers slowly locking into place replaced the awkwardness and ignorance. By the sixth or seventh attempt, stones thrown stopped in roughly the same area code I tried to dial for them. I stopped saying "Good shot!" when it was actually lousy.
I didn't get good. I didn't get competent. I did get to the point where no one was constantly concerned for my safety. And I knew the score when we finally did win. The final tally: four relieved and happy team faces to none before.
Another true story: I went back to my snowy north Midwestern roots for the holidays. My high school had its own hockey team, for reference. I stopped by the local mall, which had an ice rink added a handful of years ago. I poked my nose into the hockey supply shop adjacent to the rink on the off-chance they had any curling gear. (Curling has more gear opportunities than a Barry Bonds dress-alike contest.)
No, they didn't have any curling gear. Like most ice in the United States, the rink across the way focused on junior hockey and li'l figure skaters. However, the gentleman behind the counter began to quiz me about curling in Arizona. Do they pebble the ice for you? How many come out? You don't have to buy curling shoes; have you considered a pair of Chuck Taylors and five-inch packing tape to reduce friction? (You will kneel before me, friction. Kneel before Zod!)
I was stunned. Had these stealthy curlers surrounded me my whole upbringing with nary a word to me? My entire childhood shifted slightly on its foundations. Apparently, I had to travel to Arizona to find my cultural heritage waiting for me.
I didn't buy anything that day, but perhaps I should have invested in a hockey helmet. After all, I'm headed back for another league in January and that ice won't be any softer next time.