Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2003 / 14 Kislev 5764

Paul Greenberg

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My first game of Bocce | BOCA RATON, Fla. I always wanted to learn how to play Bocce, or at least I've wanted to since the first time I passed a bunch of old Italian guys on a Bocce court in the Village. I'd see them every morning on my way to a stultifying job in New York. (We were rewriting a children's encyclopedia. The boss had told us to stretch out the project as long as possible to keep those pay packets coming. I stuck it out for a few weeks, which seemed like a few eternities.)

Every bright morning I would see the old guys standing around, keeping their coffee cups warm in their gloved hands, kidding each other, passing the time. I wanted to join them, be like them, instead of having to descend into a dark, dank subway on a crisp morning.

In the movie "Moonstruck," which has become my favorite over the years, the old man goes to the Bocce court when he wants to talk to his cronies and get their advice. It seems his son has been acting strange ever since his granddaughter Loretta announced she was getting married again. ("Things are getting bad in my house. My daughter-in-law is mad at my son because he will not pay for the wedding.")

The old man, even when he's doing strange things himself, like teaching his crazy dogs to howl at the moon, has a fragile dignity about him, the kind of wisdom and acceptance that comes with age. Maybe because he's always concerned with the dignity of others. ("I don't know what to advise my son. I think he should pay for the wedding, but it is important that he don't look ridiculous.")

Somehow I attributed the old man's grace to all those years on the Bocce court. He's an appealing character even when he's confused from start to almost finish, and misunderstands everything that's going on around him. Maybe if I learned how to play Bocce I could be as gracious. Like those old guys in the Village. But like so many things you really intend to do one of these days, I never got around to learning how to play.

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And then, like the hand of G-d, there it was: On the program at the convention of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association here, alongside the golf and tennis: a Bocce tournament. It was my big chance. I'd never see these people again; how much could I embarrass myself?

As it turns out, the guy running the game - his name is Dario, of course - is about the gentlest, jokiest new friend you'd ever want to teach you Bocce, which turns out to be deceptively simple, with the emphasis on the deceptively. Like Monopoly, Bocce is as simple or complicated as you want to make it, and the rules afford ample opportunity for both good humor and low cunning.

All you do is throw out the single little ball, the pallino, and try to throw/pitch/roll your Bocce ball closer to it than your opponents roll theirs. If you want rules, there are plenty: The first regular-sized ball is thrown by the team that threw out the pallino. There's a regulation-size court, though we played on the resort's croquet court under the watchful eye of the croquet pro - lest we somehow damage his carefully manicured lawn. (I hadn't even realized there was such a thing as a croquet pro.) There are eight balls in all, it's always the turn of the team whose ball is farther from the pallino until it has thrown all its balls, the players must stay behind the foul line but nobody cares if you take a step over it, all disputes are settled by the Commish (who is always named Dario), only the team with balls closest to the pallino scores in each set, and baserunners are not forced to advance but may do so if they wish. Oh, no, wait. That's the infield fly rule.

Anyway, a good time was had by all, and to my astonishment, my partner and I came in second out of a field of maybe 30 players. Even though at one point I'd walked off under the impression we'd been eliminated, and had to be retrieved from the hotel bar for the next round.

I attribute my success entirely to my tough, engaging, wisecracking, virile partner. Yep, Delores was all right. Even if she was prone to throwing short and making double entendres. (I think they should be against the rules.)

Having played my first game of Bocce after all these years, I walked off at the end feeling relaxed, unburdened, generous to man and beast, with nothing left to prove, especially to myself. Almost Italian. In short, like an old guy. It felt good.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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