When I was a kid, my uncle was on a bowling league. He spent every Wednesday and Saturday night at the bowling alley. He had his own ball, shoes and fancy chamois towelette. I don’t remember that he was unusually competitive. He just enjoyed the company of friends. The bowling alley was his Cheers, where everybody knew his name.
Despite his low-key attitude toward the game, he was quite good, often leading his team to victory, but this he attributed to certain rituals performed in succession. Much the way Rafa Nadal needs to organize his water bottles during a tennis match and Roger Clemens used to touch Babe Ruth’s statue in Monument Park before every Yankees game, my uncle had quite a few superstitions. When it was his turn, he picked up his ball, only after the pins had been set, not a moment before. He used his chamois towelette to wipe the ball, first with his right hand, then with this left, then with his right again. He ran his hand over the little fan in the ball carousel, once, twice, three times. Before his approach, he rose on his toes (twice), and then hustled down the lane to release the ball. Once it was on its way, he never looked back — never — until he stepped off the lane and into the seating area. Looking back was practically daring the bowling gods to push his ball into the gutter. These are the rituals I know about. He may have had dozens more, smaller ones, known only to him. I did get the sense that the list only got longer. If he didn’t play well one day, he didn’t scrap this bunch of rituals and start new ones. He just kept adding to them. During one regular league game on an average Saturday afternoon, all of his superstitions were somehow working in tandem.
He bowled one strike. Then another. Then another. By the time he’d bowled six strikes in a row, people from the other lanes quit bowling and gathered to watch. Seven. Eight. The manager stopped making announcements for fear of breaking my uncle’s concentration. Each time it was his turn, he went through his routine. The other bowlers didn’t scoff. They had their own superstitions. Nine. Ten. Eleven. My uncle told me that as he got up for his final ball, “Everything around me faded away. It was like I had no peripheral vision. All I could see was the lane and the pins at the very end. Like tunnel vision.” He waited for the pins to set and wiped the ball with his towelette. He ran his hand above the fan. He rose on his toes and swung his arm back to release the ball. After he let the ball go, he said that, to his eyes, the lane went dark, but there was a glow around the pins. He walked off the lane, refusing to look back. Once he stepped into the seating area, he looked over his shoulder, still with that tunnel vision and saw the pins go down one by one as if in slow motion. Then the crowd, fifty strong by this time, erupted into cheers and applause. Twelve strikes in a row. A perfect game.
A perfect game was such an extraordinary thing, like a hole-in-one in golf or a no-hitter in baseball, that I always remembered it. In his typical modest way, my uncle said that it had less to do with skill and more to do with serendipity. And following his superstitions, of course.
I’m not a superstitious person by nature. I’m not worried about walking under ladders or Friday the 13th. But late one night, in a bar, I became a believer.
Three friends and I decided to play a game of darts we call cricket (known by various other names around the globe). Due to a serious deficit in hand-eye coordination, I’m not great at cricket, where the goal is to hit certain numbers on the dart board three times, but I’m always happy to drag my team down with me. Before I grabbed the darts for my first turn, I took a sip of beer and wiped the condensation from my hands on a napkin. I placed my left foot on the line first. I scratched an itch on my nose. I held the dart at eye level and made three small motions with my hand before throwing the dart. Bullseye. We cheered and my friend marked it on the scoreboard.
On my next turn, I followed the same routine to the letter. It had worked so well the first time, why not. Bullseye. Bullseye. Bullseye.
By the sixth bullseye, my teammate, who knew me so well, looked at me with perplexed concern and said, “Are you okay?”
I said, “It’s not me. It’s the routine.”
“Never mind. Just get me a new napkin.”
Bullseye. My friend and I were just about to claim victory by closing out all the numbers. Another group, hoping to play darts after us, had sidled over and was keeping track. I heard one of them whisper, “She’s hit seven bullseyes so far.”
As I prepared for my final turn, I took a sip of beer, wiped my hands on a napkin, stepped up to the line left foot first, scratched my nose, flicked my wrist three times, and threw the dart. Bullseye.
“I didn’t know you were a ringer,” my friend on the other team said in a hushed tone of reverence. And my nickname became “Bullseye,” which I kinda liked. But I knew the truth.
It wasn’t me. It was the routine.
Do you follow a superstitious routine?
Have a great weekend, everyone!