Friends invite us to an afternoon party, which includes organized rounds of bocce, played on the bocce court in their backyard. These are good friends, whose financial status is reflected by their having a bocce court in their backyard. Our backyard has grass and flowers. (Okay, there’s a pool, but come on, it’s California.)
I’ve never played bocce before, but it’s pretty much like lawn bowling, which I’ve also never played before. Googling “Bocce”, we learn the rules:
Somebody tosses a little white ball (called a pallino) onto the court, after which the subsequently tossed (larger) ball resting closest to the pallino becomes the point to beat. Proceeding in rounds (a round involving each team tossing four balls), whichever team scores a pre-determined number of points first – in our game it was seven – wins. (If you are familiar with neither bocce nor lawn bowling, think “Curling”, and you’ve got the idea.)
I participate in games with a mixture of trepidation, a latent competitiveness, and the fear of calamitous humiliation. (“What if I stink?”) I am not a cheerful partygoer at the best of times. Throw in “games” (“It’s ‘Charades’. No pressure. It’ll be fun.”) and I am praying for the flu. (“I don’t want to contaminate the other guests, so I’d better stay home.”)
Our arrival is met by an energetic crew of valet parkers. Two Bentleys are parked conspicuously off to the side. (“I hope those are party favors,” I quip, to well-earned silence.) Our (unwashed) Prius is hastily whisked away. The Whole Foods parking lot is full of Priuses. But this isn’t the Whole Foods parking lot.
We come in the front door, pass through the house, and exit into the garden, greeted only by a giant poodle, who, after a perfunctory sniff, radiates a message of indifference. I don’t know. Can you train a dog to smell status?
The guests are gathered in the backyard, which overlooks the Bel Air Country Club. I may be maligning (or trumpeting a selling point of) that organization, but I am not sure Jews are welcome at the Bel Air Country Club. They are, however, permitted to overlook it. (“Wow! Look where we can’t play!”)
Our host greets us with an enthusiastic “Hello!”, informing us that we are next on the bocce court. My stomach immediately starts to churn. Bocce may not be the Italian word for “nausea,” but the two are inextricably linked in my “jumpy place.”
I casually, by which I mean deliberately, sidle over to courtside to pick up some sorely needed pointers. I secretly register my “scouting report.”
The ball rolls fast.
When our turn arrives, we step tentatively down onto the field of play. We are introduced to our competition, a friendly woman who’s as nervous as we are, and her athletic-looking husband, who projects the confidence of a man who has won at everything he has ever attempted.
I am chosen to begin the game by tossing out the pallino. Which I do. I gauge the strategic advantage of tossing it far down the court or relatively close. I decide I have no idea, and just throw the pallino out there.
My wife undemocratically determines that I will represent our team first. I decide to cup my hand over the ball – larger than a baseball, smaller than a softball – and flip it towards the pallino, such that the backspin I put on it will keep the ball from over-running its destination, as the balls had done frequently in the game I’d observed.
My ball lands softly, rolling within inches of the pallino. My first bocce play ever. And it’s shockingly impressive. I offer an immediate explanation for my success.
And I’m not being humble. In my sixty-seven years on this earth, I have never been good at any sport.
As it turns out, this is about to change.
During the game – which we win – with the exception of one ball, which I toss too softly, all of my shots (of which there were perhaps a dozen) are astonishingly on the money. Inexplicably, I have a natural “feel” for the game. Nothing in my background would have predicted it, but, apparently,
I am really good at bocce.
The unfamiliar feeling made me giddy.
Me – skillful at a sport.
It’s a transformative notion. I feel floated to a magical, new place, The Wizard of Oz, blossoming from black-and-white into color. Every shot I make is near perfection. I can hardly believe it. Who is doing this? Who has taken over my body?
Nobody. It is me.
I am kicking ass at bocce.
My success makes me wonder. (Which makes me different from the naturally successful. The naturally successful never wonder when they win. They simply say “Thank you”, and carry home the trophy.)
What I wonder is this. “Look what I’m good at that I didn’t know I was good at!” Leading to, “Do I have any other gifts I am currently unaware of?”
I exclude any activities involving physical endangerment – parasailing and slaloming down a hill. I did not wonder about those, because, even if I had the potential to be “world class” at them, I would still adamantly steer clear. Why?
Because you could fracture your femur.
I want no part of hip-length casts, or life-long stabs of pain during inclement weather.
So those things are out.
Still, here I am, an entirely unexpected Bocce Master. It is irresistible to ponder what else am I born to do, but have no idea I have a talent for?
Maybe I can really cut hair. Maybe I have an inordinate gift for clog dancing. I could have an instinctive rapport with aboriginal tribespeople. Or an uncanny facility for needlepoint.
Perhaps I’m a genius barrel maker. Or maybe I can row, keeping perfect internal rhythm, never hitting the other oars.
I could have “the touch” for selling life insurance. Or an incomparable way with a quiche.
I know I do one thing pretty well. I can write. But maybe there are things I am unaware of that I actually do equally well, or even better. Who knows? I could be a world-class taxidermist.
Being proficient at writing made me stop looking further, like the police after an arrest, curtailing their investigation. Wait! A really good detective?... Nah. I could never say, “Police! Spread ‘em!” with a straight face.
Still, if I was blindsided by my bocce gifts,
What else am I a “natural” at? *
* It just hit me. It could have been "Beginner's Luck."