Many years ago, when I lived in California, my friend Greg came to visit. I knew, at the time, that Greg played a mean game of ping pong, but I didn’t know he was interested in competitive table tennis. I didn’t know there was competitive table tennis. But we headed over to Berkeley for a tournament and the scales fell from my eyes.
The tournament was in a huge, open room, set up with ping-pong tables as far as the eye could see. They were spaced father apart than I would have thought necessary, but that was because the players, as I later learned, stood a good six feet back from the table.
That wasn’t the only way in which this kind of game did not resemble the rec-room ping pong I’d occasionally dabbled in. For starters, there was the concentration. The players were every bit as focused as Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal.
“Didn’t anyone tell them this isn’t real tennis?” I whispered to Greg. He kicked me and told me to be quiet.
They had super-duper paddles that, judging by their cost, must have been made from titanium. They had special shorts that allowed them freedom of movement. They had ping-pong shoes that gave them the right kind of grip. Many of them looked like serious athletes.
I found it fascinating. And it wasn’t just the game, although I found myself drawn in. It was the idea that there was an entire table-tennis subculture that I knew nothing about. I’d probably passed some of these players on the street, having no idea that they had secret lives as competitive ping-pong players.
A glimpse into someone else’s subculture, previously unknown, is a reminder of all the things you might be doing with your leisure time if you didn’t squander it all on Facebook.
Since we’ve been here, I’ve discovered that there are groups – some loosely organized, some formal enough to be incorporated – that have coalesced around every activity we’ve undertaken. There are not only gardeners, there are shellfishers and bird-watchers and mushroom foragers.
And beekeepers. Monday was our first night of Bee School, a class intended to help rank novices learn how – or whether – to keep bees. It’s put on by the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, which has a fifty-year history and a robust membership. Beekeeping is very popular on Cape Cod, and more of our fellow citizens than I would have suspected have hives in their backyards. Who knew?
We’d been planning to get a hive in the spring, but our first class gave us pause. In order to thrive, the instructor pointed out, bees need an abundant supply of nectar. At some level, of course, I knew that, but I’d never stopped to consider the implications for our situation. We live in the woods, and are nectar-challenged. I looked at Kevin in alarm. “We’re nectar- challenged,” I said.
He scoffed. “We have 120 rhododendrons.”
It’s true, we have 120 rhododendrons. I’d forgotten about them because they flowered months ago. Out of sight, out of mind. But they’re only in bloom for six weeks. What are the bees going to live on the rest of the year?
After class, we explained our situation to Andy, one of the professional apiarists teaching the class. “ Will the rhododendrons be sufficient?” we asked.
“Rhododendrons are no good for bees,” he told us. “They don’t have nectar.” He saw my look of disappointment. “What else you got?” he asked.
We have exactly what he’d already said was, from the bees’ perspective, a barren wasteland – oak and scrub pine. And nasty prickery vines.
“No linden trees? Or black locusts?” he asked.
I couldn’t say for sure, but I didn’t think so.
“How about holly?”
Bingo! Andy told us that holly was almost as good as linden, with nectar-rich flowers. And holly, we’ve got in abundance. Not only that, it turns out we live about two miles from a decommissioned holly farm, which still has many acres of mature trees. Since two miles is well within a bee’s foraging radius, things were looking up.
“Do you think we should do it?” I asked Kevin. The initial investment is in the neighborhood of $400. so, although we’re both very interested in bees, I didn’t want to try it if we were doomed to fail.
Kevin shrugged. “Sure.” He’s more sanguine about these things than I am.
“It might be worth it just for the endless stream of bad puns,” I suggested.
“Might bee,” said Kevin.
Next week, at our second class, we’ll be picking our equipment and signing up to get a colony delivered in the spring. Success isn’t guaranteed. But, as Andy pointed out, very little in life is. If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.
Part of what characterizes a subculture, whether it’s table tennis or beekeeping, is enthusiasm. You just gotta beelieve.