Adventures in Curling

I have never been a sports-oriented person. I was one of those kids who tried every trick in the book to get out of gym. I don’t really follow any baseball, football or hockey team. I do like the Toronto Raptors, but it’s mostly for their mascot, and it is purely out of my lifelong affection for dinosaurs. I know next to nothing about the actual GAME of basketball, other than the fact that getting hit in the face with the ball really hurts.

Nonetheless, every couple of years I am seized with a peculiar madness that makes me sit for hours in front of the TV watching what seem to be the world’s most obscure sports. I am, in fact, an Olympics Fanatic. I’m not sure why. It predates my interest in Ancient Greece (which goes back to when I was about 7 years old). I have said on occasion that it’s kind of a beautiful idea, that people from all around the world gather in one city…just to play GAMES.

Maybe I’m into the Olympics just because my family would reflexively turn on the Games whenever they were on, and they were part of the background noise of my childhood, yet the fact that they were only on every 4 years made them a special occasion. (This was back when the Summer and Winter Games would take place in the same year.) I was lucky enough to grow up with my ancient great-grandmother. She spoke no English, so I would sit next to her and translate what was going on. Even during my hard-studying high school and college years, I made it a point to take time out to watch the Olympics. I developed the personal mantra: “I love exercise, I can sit and watch other people do it for hours!” I even collect Summer (and some Winter) Olympic mascot toys.

Not only do I watch the Olympics obsessively, but from a young age I knew that I wanted to see the Olympics LIVE in their host city. This may stem from the fact that in 1980 the Games were in Lake Placid, which was a not-impossible driving distance from my home in New York City. But in those days we had no Internet and being only 12 I had no idea how to get tickets to the games, no funds to pay for them, and no way to convince the Grown-ups to take me. I didn’t manage to get to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, either, but when they went to Atlanta in 1996 I had a window of opportunity. One of my best college friends lived in Atlanta! With her help, I got an order form for tickets and a promise I could stay at her house. I convinced a cousin of mine to come with me. (She is an intrepid traveler and with her I have gone on several vacation adventures). Well, long story short, we got tickets, we went, and we had a pretty good time, even though it was beastly hot and we had a few missteps and misadventures on the way.

I was even more pleased in 2002 when the Winter Games were in Salt Lake City. By this time I had a full-time job, my own credit cards, and the tickets were being sold online. I recruited my cousin again and we convinced a couple of other relatives (including her husband at the time) to rent a condo in Deer Valley, a ski resort and Olympic venue host about 30 minutes up the mountains from downtown Salt Lake City. Among the tickets I ordered were the requisite figure skating tickets (the one sport I do care about more than any other…actually it’s one of my pet obsessions, but that’s another story); we also got tickets for skiing, speedskating and a number of other events.

One of the tickets I got was for Curling. I first saw the sport on TV during the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, though I had vaguely heard about it before. I had decided to get the tickets more out of amusement value than anything else – on TV I’d vaguely seen the players frantically wielding their wacky-looking brooms, sweeping the ice ahead of a crazy sliding rock that looked like a big gray donut with a handle. When I told my cousin I’d scored Olympic Curling tickets she was very dubious. I said, “Look, at the very least, we can MOCK it.” My cousin and I share many inside jokes and she appreciated the opportunity to get some new material. So off we went.

The Olympic Curling venue at the Salt Lake games was not in the city itself, but in a very unassuming town called Ogden, Utah. We’d already been at the games for a week or so and by then I had gotten used to the area’s rustic charm. We saw very beautiful scenery while driving along the mountain roads around Salt Lake City. I found out that the Purple Mountains Majesty is not just an expression – at sunset the mountains do literally look purple. At one point in our peregrinations around the host region, my cousin’s French husband was so moved by the scenery he exclaimed, “This is America! This is the Wild Wild West!”

The curling venue was as unassuming as its surroundings, a modest, functional building decorated with the Olympic rings and banners. As soon as we got out, though, we knew it was going to be an interesting afternoon. For in the parking lot we saw…Canadian Fans.

Curling is big in Canada, possibly due to a large number of people of Scottish Descent. The parking lot was full of VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CANADIANS. Many people were dressed from head-to-toe in some kind of red-and-white Maple Leaf finery. One guy was wearing a bunch of tiny Canadian flags on little poles sticking out from his head, his shoulders and various other positions. Another guy was dressed like a Mountie. I also recall seeing men in kilts but I don’t know if they were Scots or Canadian. (It could have gone either way.) When we took our seats – surrounded by folks in red sweatjackets emblazoned “CANADA,” I was wondering if we were the only Americans who had bothered to show up.

The games began, and sure enough when we started, everything looked ridiculous to us. There was one guy squatting on the ice, sliding this silly round stone towards a giant target. Then two other guys ran maniacally IN FRONT of the stone, sweeping the ice madly while everybody was YELLING AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS!

According to the handy pamphlet we had gotten with our tickets, we learned that the sweeping supposedly melts the ice and reduces friction to make the stone go faster – they are not allowed to actually TOUCH the stone. Then the idea is to get the stone as close to the center of the target (the “button”) as possible. There are 10 stones per team and they try to knock their opponents’ stone out of the circle, or use their stones to block the other teams’ stone…there are a number of strategies. (See here for more details.)

I have to say, the game is more fascinating than you might think. Yes, we started out by mocking it. Less than one hour in (of a three-hour session) we were starting to get it. We started listening to the comments passed back and forth by our Canadian seat mates and then we got INTO it. By the end of the afternoon we were totally enthralled…”Do you think he’ll make that shot? Do you think he’ll get a Double-Takeout?”

By the time we went back to the parking lot we were CURLING FANS!

(Strangely enough, I can’t now remember exactly which curling game in the tournament we saw, nor who won. We were more enthralled by the sport itself than who was playing.)

Curling has a cyclical level of interest (at least, outside Canada) along with other obscure Olympic sports like Luge. When the 2006 Olympics came on TV, the network showed 3 hours of coverage a day. My DVR was full of Curling and I watched it faithfully.

The 2010 Olympics were going to be in Vancouver, Canada. By this point I was totally hooked on going to the Games and I was able to score some tickets and convince my cousin to come again. I didn’t get to as many events as we’d seen the last time, but I made sure to get at least one Figure Skating ticket ….and CURLING SEMI-FINALS! I figured, if the Canadians were in fine form in Utah they were going to be out of control (in a good way) on home soil. (By the way, I am absolutely a fan of female Olympians, but so far mere luck has determined that both times I’ve gotten tickets to Men’s Curling events.)

We were not disappointed in Vancouver. The Curling venue was in a large park-like area surrounded by a lovely residential neighborhood. It was unusually warm that year and the cherry blossom trees were already blooming in late February.

Cherry Blossoms Already Blooming at Vancouver Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

Cherry Blossoms Already Blooming at Vancouver Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

When we got into the building, it was like a rock concert. There was a huge home crowd gathered – Canada was in the semi-finals (not surprising). Two games were going to be played simultaneously – Canada vs. Sweden and Norway vs. Switzerland. Team Norway had by now achieved notoriety for their loud and colorful trousers and that day their outfits did not disappoint.

Team Norway's Amazing Pants (Photo by K. Kindya)

Team Norway’s Amazing Pants (Photo by K. Kindya)

There were many enthusiastic blocks of fans from all the nations, shouting, cheering and singing.

By this time, my cousin and I were not there to mock…we were Of the Faithful. We were rooting for Canada of course (USA had been knocked out of contention a while ago), but I was totally amused by the Norwegians as well. Others in the audience were showing their sartorial enthusiasm – by this point the Norwegians’ costumes had gotten enough TV coverage that there were people in the audience wearing entire suits of red-white-and-blue argyle (the colors of the Norwegian flag).

Team Norway's Fans wear Loud Suits (Photo by K. Kindya)

Team Norway’s Fans wear Loud Suits (Photo by K. Kindya)

There also, of course, were the requisite Canadian red and white and/or maple-leaf ensembles. I also ran into some folks who had acquired lovely foam hats in the shape of curling stones.

One of several Canadian cheering sections at the Men's Curling semi-finals in Vancouver 2010 (Photo by K. Kindya)

One of several Canadian cheering sections at the Men’s Curling semi-finals in Vancouver 2010 (Photo by K. Kindya)

While we watched, straining our limited (though enthusiastic) knowledge of the game, two elderly ladies in the row behind us were exchanging with each other DEEP analysis of the Canadian team’s prospects and strategies. On the giant tv monitors around the room, whenever any team scored significantly, we saw an adorable animation of one of the Olympic mascots, a cartoon marmot wearing a knit cap (aka a “tocque”) waving a foam finger that said “We’re #1!”.

Canada won their match first, and there was much rejoicing. However, a hilarious thing then happened as the Norwegians continued their contest against the Swiss. The Canadians in the audience started cheering the Norwegians to win! They chanted, “WE WANT THE PANTS! WE WANT THE PANTS!”

It apparently worked because Team Norway won their game and went on to face Canada in the finals.

Final Score at the Men's  Curling Semi-Finals at 2010 Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

Final Score at the Men’s Curling Semi-Finals at 2010 Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

(In case you’re wondering, Team Canada scored the gold, and Norway the silver. We’d gotten back home by then but I saw the finals on TV.)

I was not the only one who caught the Curling bug. Stephen Colbert, the TV personality, made a running gag of trying out for Olympic sports on his show, The Colbert Report, and one of his segments had him visiting a curling club in New Jersey. (It’s about two hours’ driving distance from my house.) A couple of my friends forwarded me an e-mail from that club after the Olympics, inviting people to try a 3-hour introductory curling lesson. (I suppose every year after the Olympics they get a chance to recruit new members.) Having gotten hooked on the TV Olympic coverage themselves, my friends asked me to join them.

Now, as mentioned above, I’m not INTO sports. However, I did do archery in college and I still am a fan. (I’ve seen it at two summer Olympics. I saw it back in Atlanta in ’96 and after Vancouver in 2010 I saw it in London in 2012.) I figured, why not try Curling? It can’t be as hard as figure skating looks!

So, we drove down to yet another very unassuming Curling club and took our 3 hour lesson.

Well, dear readers…CURLING IS NOT EASY. At least, it wasn’t for me. It took me an hour longer than my friends did to learn even the basic moves. The movements are not what one imagines they may be while watching the game. You actually don’t propel the stone with your arms; when you crouch on the ice, you keep one leg forward and push your whole body with your back leg, using your hip muscles. You then slide along the ice yourself, being pulled by the stone’s momentum until you let go of the stone and it continues on its way. The stance was not easy for me to maintain; I kept losing my balance and falling onto my right side and hip. The stone rarely got very far or very fast.

This is me, attempting to curl.

This is me, attempting to curl.

The sweeping part was a little easier for me, but one of my friends slipped and fell onto her back, getting a nasty bump on the head.  Luckily, she recovered. By the day after, the three of us had aches in muscles we didn’t know we had. I had an impressive set of bruises on my side. On TV it doesn’t look like a full-contact sport.

I now have an even greater respect for the game than those early days when I thought it was silly. I didn’t go to the Sochi games, but I faithfully watched the curling (still 3 hours of coverage a day). Team Norway was back with even wackier trousers. I haven’t managed to go curling again, but if I ever go to another Winter Olympics I’ll be sure to get my tickets. I might even wear a crazy foam curling-stone hat and Loudmouth Golf Pants.

I raise my Powerade to the 2010 Olympic Curling Program!

I raise my Powerade to the 2010 Olympic Curling Program!

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More on How Not to Write A Strong Female Character

I just recently saw 300: Rise of the Empire.

Back about 10 years ago, I saw the original 300 film. (I can’t believe how long ago that movie was released.)  I’m both a longtime comic book fan and an avid reader of ancient history and archaeology;  I had bought the original 300 comic book miniseries by Frank Miller years before there was even talk of making it into a movie.  Granted, I accepted that this account of the Battle of Thermopylae was NOT what I would recommend as a source for a paper on Ancient Greek History. I found the movie itself to be ridiculous popcorn fun. As a heterosexual woman I will also tell you that the multitude of sculpted six-pack abs was pretty easy on my eyes as well.

When word came out that there was going to be a sequel, I don’t think I was the only person who wondered, “How can you do a sequel when (SPOILER ALERT!) the title characters ALL DIE?”  So I was intrigued. I was especially intrigued when I got wind that the movie would feature the Battle of Salamis and a major role for Queen Artemisia, a female admiral in the Persian fleet who was a real historical figure.  (I had run across accounts of her exploits before in my various past readings.)

Much as with the original, I did not expect 300: Rise of the Empire to be a factual documentary on historical events.  But it turns out that this film took even greater liberties than the first one did.

I had no problem with the still-ridiculously-impractical non-armor that the non-hoplites wore in the film. (I actually view the whole visual convention of these films as a form of “heroic nudity,” which you can see on real ancient Greek art.) Besides, the overdeveloped abs are half the fun of the film for me, anyway. I also laughed at the non-ancient Non-Persian fashions – who knew they had fishnet stockings back then?  I also admit I am a fan of Eva Green – I love how she plays villains (if you can stand it, watch her as Morgan le Fay in the Starz TV series “Camelot.” It’s only 10 episodes.)  Yes, she chews the scenery with great vigor but in a movie like this you can’t exactly be subtle.

What struck me, though, was how much Artemisia in this movie is a textbook case of the faux feminism I discussed in the last post.  In the movie she is the commander of the entire Persian fleet and the power behind the throne of the Emperor Xerxes.  Unfortunately, she’s depicted as a revenge-crazed ex-slave who, though ethnically Greek herself, hates her own people for her family’s (never clearly explained) slaughter and her subsequent sexual violation. She’s a bloodthirsty swordswoman who gleefully decapitates her underlings for their shortcomings.  She runs into battle, engaging her enemy with two blades drawn, ending in a climactic one-on-one duel with the Athenian general whom she faces with the infernal fury of a woman scorned. And YES, there’s a scene where she shoots arrows. (Though to be fair, the other side shoots arrows, too.)

Look out! She's got a BOW AND ARROWS!

Look out! She’s got a BOW AND ARROWS!

The historical record paints a totally different picture of Artemisia.  According to the ancient historian Herodotus (whose relevant quotes are conveniently gathered here), the real Artemisia was actually a widowed queen with an underaged son, and she had legitimately inherited the throne of her city-state from her late husband. (She ruled Halicarnassus and was the ancestor of the later queen who famously commissioned the Mausoleum) Her polis had been conquered by the Persians and was a vassal state of their empire but Artemisia had no burning hatred of the Greeks, as far as I can tell.  She was simply a loyal satrap to the Persian Emperor.  None of the slaughter, enslavement or rape shown in the movie ever happened to her.  She didn’t command the entire Persian fleet, but only a small complement of ships — nonetheless it was still unusual for a woman to be a military commander, especially among the Persians who were quite patriarchal.  The also-patriarchal Athenians were so unnerved by facing a woman in battle that they put out a reward of 10,000 drachmas for her capture. (Which they didn’t achieve.)

Unlike her manic screen counterpart, Artemisia was quite level-headed, and perspicacious enough to advise Emperor Xerxes AGAINST facing the Athenian forces in a naval battle.  She was a shrewd tactician and outwitted her enemies with deception and subterfuge.  (Spoiler Alert!) She not only survived the Battle of Salamis but lived on to give her emperor more valuable advice and was rewarded for her wisdom.

Now, as a fan of ridiculous action movies, I got my few dollars worth of amusement out of 300: Rise of the Empire.  I never expected the movie to be more than a festival of over-the-top, cartoonish violence.  It’s a shame, though, that the writers chose the lazy, Hollywood-shortcut way to introduce mainstream audiences to what could have been a fascinating STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER.

(Artemisia also appears in a classic 1960’s “Sword and Sandal” movie called The 300 Spartans. I haven’t seen this version yet so I can’t comment on it.)

I also have major issues with having the “strong female character’s” primary motivation be enslavement and rape, and her personal enmity with the opposing commander to be rooted in what is basically sexual rejection. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Artemisia was a woman who IN REAL LIFE was an accomplished female in a man’s world. She was a military commander but she was known more for her brains than mindless brawn.  In the visual short-hand of Hollywood, though, she has to be shown as a heavily-armed berserker.  The swordfight sequences were fun enough to watch, but I think it would have made a perfectly entertaining movie to see Artemisia pulling the wool over the Athenians’ eyes with her wily tactics. They could have still shown plenty of swordfights and mayhem-filled set-pieces, but with the backdrop of the two commanders’ battle of wits. It’s disappointing that the film wasted this opportunity.

So, if you were intrigued by the figure of Artemisia, by all means look her up and find out her real story. As is often the case, truth is stranger – and more interesting – than fiction.

(As a side note, if you would like to read a comic book with an Ancient Greek storyline that is actually METICULOUSLY researched, I highly recommend Age of Bronze, an excellent comic-book retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan War.)

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How Not To Create a Strong Female Character

As a writer and a woman (from a family of strong women) the evolving role of female characters in fiction, especially movies and TV, is a topic that I’ve been following and discussing for a long time.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was at a writers’ conference on a panel called “Where have the strong female characters gone?” We got to talking about the difference between creating a real, genuinely strong female character vs. writers taking shortcuts to create a token “woman of cardboard.”

The most egregious shortcut is what you could call “weapons=empowerment” or what is referred to in the article below as “faux feminism.”  Judging from Disney’s Merida and The Hunger Games’ Katniss, guns are passé for the movie heroine du jour – today it’s all about bows and arrows.

As Forbes columnist Scott Mendelson puts it, :

“Crafting a well-rounded female character in a mainstream picture is about more than just putting a weapon in their hand or giving them a patronizing ’girl power punch’ during an action sequence or two.”

It’s not just a problem in mainstream movies. At the conference I attended, my fellow panelist mentioned how quickly she dismissed the “female empowerment” in the television show Once Upon a Time, which debuted on ABC just a few months after the above article came out.  She was unimpressed with Snow White’s self-consciously-presented backstory, which showed her skulking around in the forest as a highwaywoman brandishing – guess what – a bow and arrows.

I actually enjoy Once Upon a Time, and I find its deconstructions and mashups of its Disneyfied fairy tales to be quite clever.  But I do see the point my colleague was making.  Another egregious example from the same year (2012) was the protagonist of the NBC post-apocalypse-set show Revolution. In what was a pretty blatant attempt to position her as the “poor-woman’s Katniss” on promotional art, she was shown prominently carrying – YET AGAIN—a bow and arrows.

Look, she's got a bow! She must be a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER!

Look, she’s got a bow! She must be a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER!

What this boils down to is that for a woman to be taken seriously as a hero, she has to take on the attributes of a man.  She must be heavily armed and solve her problems with physical violence. (Why now it’s with a bow and arrows and not a gun is, in my opinion, merely a fashion statement of the moment.  After all, 2012 also brought us the male archers Hawkeye in The Avengers and Arrow on TV)

Now, don’t get me wrong – I have always enjoyed female action heroes.  When I was a kid I wanted to be Batgirl, Wonder Woman or Princess Leia.  In the 80’s and 90’s I cheered for Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.  More recently enjoyed the first Underworld movie, where Kate Beckinsale played a gun-toting vampire who protects Scott Speedman, “dude in distress,” from other vampires and werewolves.  And as a longtime comics fan I root for the female X-Men and Black Widow in the newest Marvel movies.

I think all these characters made important steps in the evolution of the movie heroine. (Though female action heroes are still few and far between compared to their male counterparts, at least their number seems to be steadily growing over the years.) I’m not at all saying that it’s WRONG for a female character to tote a weapon and throw a few punches. But after all these decades, it’s time for the writers of popular entertainment to broaden their horizons and their definitions of what makes a hero.  This is a problem for both male and female protagonists, to be sure –male movie heroes rarely overcome their challenges with brains rather than bullets either.

However, I have hope for the future, at least for movie heroines and Disney Princesses in particular. That hope can be summarized in one word: FROZEN.

Ironically, the marketing of this film reportedly took great pains to dissociate itself from the “Disney Princess” label, in the hopes of attracting more boys to the theaters.

But it wasn’t the marketing that made this movie such a success.  Frozen is pretty much THE MOST SUBVERSIVE DISNEY PRINCESS MOVIE EVER.  (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was written by a woman, either.) The conventions of Disney Fairy Tale movies are deliberately upended – from the storyline’s critique of the “love at first sight” trope, to the simple fact that in this film a Disney Princess is crowned a QUEEN IN HER OWN RIGHT without having to actually marry a prince.

What I found most refreshing about this film was that Princess Anna is a true heroine – but she does it by virtue of her own personality, not the short-cut of carrying a weapon.  She saves the day with her own determination, resourcefulness, and sisterly love. Unlike Merida she isn’t necessarily focused on improving her own situation but in saving her sister and her people. Plus the “true love’s kiss” trope (SPOILER ALERT!) has NOTHING to do with loving a man.

What it boils down to is a simple truth. Heroism comes from the heart, not from the barrel of a gun or the point of an arrow.  It would be nice to see more male heroes embody this principle as well. It’s a matter of creating a three-dimensional character with a real inner life and inner strength, not a mannequin carrying a requisite set of props.


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