The One with the Bullseyes

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.

Strike

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.

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.”

“What?”

“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!

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30 comments

  1. Wonderful post! I can visualize your uncle going through his “routine!” You make me realize that the routine is more than superstition. It’s really a way of getting your mind “in the groove” and focusing intently on what you’re doing. –Patti

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  2. I have so many bad habits that I do so often, they might as well be routines, and they have much more in common with stupidity than superstition. Very impressive feats by you and your uncle! Did you share your triumph with him?

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    1. You could create a routine around your bike rides. Maybe you should pedal only with your left foot and drink water only with your right hand and wear a Richard Simmons-style sweat band. Then I bet you’ll win the stationary bike Olympics.

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  3. Wow, both stories are pretty amazing, Jackie. I’m a person who has LOTS of rituals. It seems to comfort me to do the same things the same way, over and over. However, it has NEVER lead to this kind of success. Maybe I need to be more purposeful about these things. But, then again, Sara might kill me. LOL

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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  4. Awesome post: The power of ritual to create focus; you describe it so perfectly, especially the narrowed vision your uncle experienced, as if the pins, lane and ball became everything. And what a dart game! Were you ever able to replicate it?
    I do have some rituals, but I’m wary of becoming OCD, which I’ve witnessed, and don’t even want to get started in myself! Haha! Meditation (and yoga) are the only two serious rituals I indulge in, and acknowledge they have something to do with writing my best.
    Have a beautiful Sunday, Jackie!

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    1. We writers tend to have superstitions…ahem, rituals… around our writing process, don’t we? I have to confess –when I write longhand, I always use the same pen. Even if I have many at my disposal, I will always be sure to take my “lucky” pen. But I think meditation and yoga are much better options.
      Do you have a specific ritual around your meditation process? I’m wondering if creating a certain habit around meditating would help me.

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      1. Well, I do have a recording of the sea I like to play, and I almost always do yoga prior to meditation to quiet and center my mind, which can be a lot like an unruly child otherwise. I guess those are rituals, (but I like to call them “preferences”, thank you!). Turn the phone to silent, of course, and first thing in the morning in whatever you slept in helps. (Sleep in yoga friendly pjs.) The more it is just part of a morning routine the better for me; less chance of excuses and the insidious slacking that follows. 🙂

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      2. Great suggestions, Cynthia. It’s really smart to meditate in the morning. I’ve tried to meditate after work and not only is my mind racing from the day’s activities, but I have actually fallen asleep. (Sad but true.)

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  5. How neat. I loved hearing about your uncle and his bowling. He won’t believe this, but I’ve only been bowling three times so I’m in awe of his perfect game. I played more darts but haven’t had a streak like yours. Loved both stories. Maybe I should start a tradition when I do things.

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  6. Ha! I love this 🙂 Dude I was such a jock growing up. And if you ask any jock I’m sure they’ll tell you they have a routine. We totally believe in it. I did it on the free throw line before every shot. I did it on the volleyball court before every serve. I do it in the morning before every race. You just gotta have your routine. But it’s funny how I used to use a routine for all my sports stuff, but I never used it at the office or before I write. Just in sports. You’d figure I’d come up with one in the writing department, seeing how I need to be hitting a bullseye there. Great post!

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  7. Two amazing results! I must admit, I was waiting for the moment where your last throw hit the floor or bounced off the wall! I don’t have any rituals but I think I’m going to invent some now 🙂

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